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Passion Play, A Cycle

I think Jesus would appreciate marijuana -- Eric (the actor who portrays Christ in Act III).

Passion Play
Howard W. Overshown as John, the actor who portrays Jesus in Act I of Passion Play
(Photo; Scott Suchman0
Sarah Ruhl continues her streak of crisp writing with Arena Stage's world premiere of her new triptych Passion Play, A Cycle. Spanning 400 years and three countries, the 12-member cast creates 30 characters with 100 costumes on three sets. It's an undertaking of which Arena is justifiably proud. The end result is a funny, touching, gritty piece of theatre that has you alternately laughing and then squirming in your seat.

Ms. Ruhl began the process of writing Passion Play ten years ago as a graduate student at Brown University. She wrote the first two acts of the piece as part of her senior thesis project and intended them to be two one-act plays. Then, with a commission from Arena Stage and prodding from Molly Smith, the theatre's Artistic Director, Ruhl began writing the third act and entertained combining all three into one production.

While partially still a work in progress, the play flows smoothly. It seldom becomes bogged down and is deliciously interconnected as the time periods of "patriotism fueled by fear" are examined through the production of a play about Christ's crucifixion. And while Ruhl looks at the political aspects of each age, she also examines how the actors who play the characters are impacted by performing one specific religious role over a period of many years, sometimes for their entire lives.

The first act opens in Northern England just after Queen Elizabeth has outlawed Catholicism and a small, rural village is about to stage its annual rendition of The Passion of Christ. Priests are being jailed, the sky is turning red and the community thinks it has another virgin birth on its hands. Jealousy of roles, fear of being branded a sinner, guilt about one's sexual orientation all surface in this act which is funny, touching, and embraces the fanciful and fantastical.

Act Two is a bit harder to watch as the time period moves to Nazi Germany and the anti-Semitism within the play is peeled back for everyone to see. What seemed humorous before now turns deadly as the townspeople of Oberammergau embrace the vitriol of Nazism and, while professing the love of Christ, lock a young Jewish girl in a crate as a punishment for interrupting a rehearsal. In this act, personal contradictions abound and the magical elements give way to dark undertones as everyone seems to be ignoring Christ's actual message of love to choose a much more self-interested way of being.

The final act is set in Spearfish, South Dakota during two Republican waves of patriotism -- the Vietnam War and the Reagan Administration. Starting at the outset of the 1970's the play's Pontius Pilate heads to Vietnam (he enlists). When he returns the happy-go-lucky boy who left is replaced by a paranoid, delusional man who feels compelled to sleep outside and still fight a war that has long been over in everyone else's minds. Meanwhile the show must go on as the townspeople prepare for their annual pageant. When a nail gets driven through a hand we realize how much has been lost in the process of man's reinterpretation of Christ's life.

Ruhl's interweaving of the stories is quite remarkable. The Pontius Pilate of the first play who so wanted to play the Christ becomes Christ-like in his seemingly insane mission-driven life by the third act. The pious actor playing Jesus in Act One slowly becomes more human in acts two and three. While the character's names change, their identifying roles in The Passion remain the same.

Director Molly Smith seems to be having a wonderful time in casting and production. It was at her suggestion that Ruhl pulled the three pieces into one performance and Ms. Smith seems to have pulled out all the stops and has even taken a few creative risks that one doesn't expect from an Arena performance such as the casting of a man as Queen Elizabeth (Robert Dorfman who also plays Nixon, Reagan and Hitler). The pacing of such a lengthy production doesn't falter and the tension that builds with each act reaches its zenith with the swing of a hammer in the third part of this tableau. It's clear she is in tune with Ruhl on where the play is intended to head.

Scott Bradley's set design stands out most with the minimal staging of Act Three. A series of telephone poles -- each looking like a cross -- fade off into the distance against a grey-white sky. After the lush greens of Act Two and the technical aspects of Act One, Act Three's starkness is compelling.

Costuming would seem to be a dream job or a nightmare and costumer Linda Cho has done a great job of outfitting the company in intricate ensembles, casual modern wear and peasant stock. André Pluess' original music is quite nice while Joel Moritz' red lighting in Act One is reminiscent of a meteor skirting across the sky.

The two most stunning performances are given by Felix Solis who plays Pontius Pilate and Polly Noonan as the Village Idiot. Mr. Solis' characters require a huge amount of emotional energy as he alternately plays a jealous cousin, a loving friend and a schizophrenic father. By the end of the play he has taken you on an emotional roller coaster ride through the psyches of several people. Miss Noonan's performance seems so easy that at first you don't realize how much talent is needed to make it happen. As the adult Village Idiot in Act One she is somewhat half-witted yet insightful as to what is actually happening around her. As Violet, the child Village Idiot in Act Two, she is the personification of the Jewish experience in Nazi Germany. Each character is in a constant state of nervous animation yet must offer us humor and tragedy in one quickly moving performance.

As the Christ in each production, Howard K. Overshown is the main voice of kindness and reason in each of the acts. His is a performance of thoughtful composure that highlights the inner doubts of the role he is playing. It's an understated performance that is easy to overlook. Kelly Brady brings humor and humanity to the Virgin Mary. In love with Jesus in the first act, a non-committal ice queen in the second, and a distraught wife in the third -- she pulls out the "every woman" in each of the characters' portrayals.

Robert Dorfman camps it up as the play's power figures -- Queen Elizabeth, Hitler, Nixon and Reagan. He skirts just shy of making them caricatures. Instead he shows the inner egotism which propels someone to become a world leader, while also the foibles that lie just under the outer veneer.

Carla Harting's Mary (Magdalene) is alternately a lesbian in Act One, questioning the idea of sin; a daughter in Act Two determined to keep the role of Jesus in the family; and a sister in Act Three who is part confessor and part comforter. Ms. Harting brings a straight forward charm to each of the roles, almost as if the same spirit is being reincarnated in each body. Each is different, yet there is a similar essence to all.

Leo Erickson as the demanding director of each play (he retires midway through Act Three) is part community theatre ego and part protector of the flock of actors. Edward James Hyland's Visitor (friar on the run, visiting English literary researcher) brings an outsider humor to the proceedings.

Arena Stage has pulled together a terrific production that when seen along with Theatre J's The Disputation is a terrific touchstone to discuss one of those topics we are always being warned not to discuss -- religion and its place in society. In addition, it also offers an opportunity to examine the role of spirituality in our own individual lives.

For Washington audiences this production is a real treat. Ruhl's The Clean House is making its way to Lincoln Center and is slated to arrive sometime in late 2006. I imagine that Passion Play, A Cycle will arrive on Broadway, perhaps somewhat fine-tuned and tinkered with, but with essentially the same story. This is your chance to get a peak of a production before the rest of the country.

Passion Play, A Cycle
by Sarah Ruhl
Directed by Molly Smith
with Kelly Brady, Parker Dixon, Robert Dorfman, Leo Erickson, Carla Harting, Edward James Hyland, Karl Miller, Polly Noonan, Howard W. Overshown, Lawrence Redmond, J. Fred Shiffman, Felix Solis
Set Design: Scott Bradley
Lighting Design: Joel Moritz
Costume Design: Linda Cho
Sound Design and Original Music: André Pluess
Running Time: 3 hours and 30 minutes with 2 intermissions
A production of Arena Stage
Arena's Kreeger Theatre, 1101 Sixth Street SW, Washington, DC
Telephone: 202-488-3300
TUE - SUN @7, SAT-SUN @1; $41 - $60
Opening 09/02/05, closing 10/16/05
Reviewed by Rich See based on 09/08/05 performance
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