In the second part of the Epic Theatre Ensemble’s excellent production of Sarah Ruhl’s Passion Play, currently playing at the Irondale Center, a group of Bavarian locals are rehearsing the famous Oberamergau Passion Play. Dressed in various traditional racist depictions of Jews (horns, gold, general ugly), the Hebraic rabbis of the Bible demand the death of Jesus, moments before they dive to the ground in search of falling coins. Spectators immediately recognize the humorous tone. The question, however, is what it is exactly that we recognize – is it the classic stereotypes themselves, now outdated, or at least socially taboo, or is it our own relationship with those images today? In other words, are we relating to an iconic image from the past, or to a breathing part of our own intellectual world today? Or in Ms. Ruhl’s words from her playwright’s note – “Where is the line between authentic identity and performance? And is there, in fact, such a line?” The playwright’s question is alive in this production, in large part due to the fact that her producers at ETE insist that the theater should strive to blur the line between its role as performance and its social role in the community. Playing in a church in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene, the three and a half hour play, often followed or preceded by public discussions about religion and public life, functions as a type of modern day direct democracy gathering. True, the main speakers seem not to come from the Evangelical right, but they do come with a (critical perhaps) love of the Good Lord, and an appreciation for how people have felt about Him at different moments in history.
The three plays that make up the evening, however, are not designed to be didactic. They are, in fact, poetic explorations of the relationship between Church and State, and of the purpose of the theater in times of public strife. Under the competent direction of Mark Wing-Davey, each of the plays drags the spectator’s imagination from simple stories to dreamy theatrical imagery, from Jesus to Ronald Reagan.
“When I close my eyes I see a parade of dead fish coming at me,” says Pontius the Fish Gutter in part I one of the cycle, just a moment before a parade of enormous fish silently fill the stage, Bread and Puppet style (the mobile sets and huge puppets by Allen Moyer and Warren Karp really bring the plays to life) . A short moment later Queen Elizabeth shows up (the marvelous T. Ryder Smith) to shut down the play. Explained in greater clarity in the program than in the play (where she talks about very thick make-up), the 16th century Protestant queen forbid depictions of the Christ, forcing the local actors to sell all their costume pieces but the clunky angel halos.
In Part II we are in pre-WWII Germany, and for the second time we witness the actress playing the Virgin (the lovely Kate Turnbull) get knocked up. This happens in each of the three plays. The reaction to it, however, is different each time, keeping the audience engaged in the similarities and differences between each historical moment.
The rehearsals for the Passion, which we witness as well in every one of the plays, are interrupted during the first two by the irritating Village Idiot. It is unclear what Ms. Ruhl was attempting to do with this character, and despite a valiant attempt by Polly Noonan, one feels quite annoyed at the actor playing Jesus (Hale Appelman), when he lets her out of the cage she was confined to by the play’s director. The worst moment in the cycle belongs to this Bavarian Village Idiot, at the close of the second play. She remains the only one standing for sanity against the Nazi wave, and her speech at the close of that play (right before the generic picture of a stage full of actors standing erect staring out at a fascism dazed audience) definitely presents a challenge for spectators’ desire to come back for part three after the second intermission. Nor does it help that Mr. Wing Davey directs the style of Part II away from the pageantry of Part I and towards tedious melodrama.
But hold tight – Part III brings it all together, and even makes the flat choices in its predecessor seem mildly significant to the sum total offering of the company. At last we’re back in the US of A, in the Badlands of South Dakota. We watch another virgin slip, this time onto the lap of the brother of her war-bound husband. Fifteen years later the husband is still suffering from trauma, even as Ronald Reagen shows up, Hitler makes an appearance and even Queen Elizabeth graces us one more time with her divine presence (“I don’t see why anyone would give their life for anything less than a monarch.”).
By the end of the third play we have reached present times, and that is when the actor playing the traumatized soldier (Dominic Fumusa, who gives a strong performance in Part III of the cycle) can speak some lines to the audience about religion and the state. By this point we are eager to sponge in what the writer has to say. It’s unfortunate that her grit escapes Ms. Ruhl at this critical juncture, and all she has to say is “I don’t know if this country needs more or less religion.” What is fortunate is that she has already given us over three hours of sweet and bitter thoughts to take out of the theater with us, and perhaps even allow them to seep into our daily lives.