Sarah Ruhl’s “The Passion Play”. Three dissimilar settings, three diverse periods,three distinct casts of characters repeating, or ensnared within the roles they’re fated to play in the depiction of the suffering of Jesus. Dialogue that reverberates from one setting to another, concepts reappearing period to period, all ricocheting off a chimerical motif. Flying fish, a reappearing red sun, Hitler, Elizabeth I and Ronald Reagan.
Somewhere within that cacophony, Sarah Ruhl (Pulitzer Prize finalists, Tony Award nominee, PEN and Helen Hayes Award winner) must have some message to convey, but this critic has dug to the very depths of the Cracker Jack box and not found the secret prize.
In her playwright’s notes she gives a crisp synopsis of the process that lead to the writing of this piece. She also fills in the backstory of the passion play’s history in the England of Elizabeth, the Germany of the 1000 Year Reich, and the dawning of Reagan’s morning again in America, the historical backdrops of her dramatic triptych.
Her notes are thick with ideas:
“Where is the line between authentic identity and performance?”
How the “medieval world and the digital age seemed so oddly conjoined.”
The “difference between acting as performance and acting as moral action,” and how “the separation between church and state is coming into question in our country.”
Six pages of densely typed notes in the press kit and program try to explain the play, when the play itself should be all the explanation needed.
The Evidence Room has joined with the Odyssey before in mounting such highly successful productions of “Margo Veil” and “The Receptionist”, and the strength of that partnership is manifested on stage.
Bart DeLorenzo is one of LA’s most highly regarded directors, and justly so. He engages a remarkably talented cast, each of whom is called upon to deliver a trio of characters to serve the separate pieces.
Dorie Barton portrays the tridental Virgin Mary in the tripartite renderings, with varying degrees of chastity coming to the forefront, with Daniel Bess and Christian Leffler providing the additional right angles giving congruence to the love triangle present in each of the piece’s shifting scenes. Brittany Slattery demonstrates eloquence as the voice of reason in each segment whether spoken in the persona of the village idiot, Jew or even child who counterpoints the Biblical account with fairytales of her own.
Another delight of the show is Shannon Holt, who has been a favorite of this reviewer since “Freaks”, who serves the production as Elizabeth I, Adolf Hitler and Ronald Reagan.
The cast here is excellent; the play is both entertaining and possessed of an undeniable intelligence, and DeLorenzo manages to move everything along at such a clip that it’s three hours length revealed at the closing comes as a complete surprise.
I am sure that in the “elemental din” of praise that this production will undoubtedly draw, mine will be the voice in the wilderness. Yet despite all the solid effort and good work found here, for me it comes back to the play, and what I find it lacking, namely clarity.
Yes, I know according to the New Yorker this was one of the 10 best plays of 2008, but they also applauded the 1994 Tony for Best Revival being awarded to Stephen Daldry’s hyperemian mangling of J.B. Priestly’s “An Inspector Calls”.
Ms. Ruhl has loaded her play with a profusion of ideas and concepts but that is not enough, were it otherwise one could do dramatic readings of the Encyclopedia Britannica. My feeling is that the playwright found herself overloaded with a wealth of material and inspiration, but in the end was unable to establish a dramatic focus on what she wanted to say with this work. This is a fatal flaw. For without clarity there can be no communication between the playwright and the audience.
The Germans have an expression, “He is so good, he is good for nothing.” If I may adjust it to be applicable to Ms. Ruhl’s play:
“It is about so much, it is about nothing.”
But go, I say, go!
Experience the show yourself, and maybe you’ll find that elusive “secret surprise” that so avoided my best efforts.
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