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A CurtainUp Review
Post-modern playwright Ruhl has put together a trilogy of an evening — three plays about three different communities in different eras putting on productions of The Passion Play — the story of Jesus (also known in religious circles as Passion Play, or in Mel Gibson circles, as The Passion of the Christ). The evening, presented by Epic Theatre Ensemble is a commitment — reaching a length of 3 hours and 40 minutes. But the payoff is well worth it.
Ruhl's writing is a bit abstract, and the over-arching themes are at times so subtle that the evening requires an active mind. Passion Play is also less slick than some of her break-out plays, such as The Clean House, In The Next Room (or, the VibratorPlay), or Eurydice. But it is also full of energy, ideas, and Ruhl's talent as a poetic new(ish) voice in theater.
The Epic Theatre Ensemble has crossed the East River for this production, leaving their usual Manhattan spaces for a former church school in Brooklyn's Fort Greene — the Irondale Center. The building is stately and rustic, with an aged, blessed look. Stadium seating makes the large space into an open theater, with the set being mostly comprised of large wooden traveling crates, carrying various props and at times even people.
The performance begins with a burst of energy. The eleven person ensemble takes the stage all at once and the first enactment of Passion Play coming to life. We are in an English town in the 16th Century, viewing rehearsals, and selections of the performers' lives. These are a passionate, religious people, but that doesn't stop their own lives at times from reflecting the story of Jesus, and the drama surrounding his legend. Suffice it to say, Mary is not a virgin, and religion is not a given freedom.
In round two, the performers play different characters, but the same parts in The Passion Play. It is pre-World War II, in Germany. The town is Oberammergau, where the story has been performed every year (and still is to this day). As bigotry breaks out around the country, so is it highlighted in the Passion Play itself, and so is diversity squelched in Oberammergau itself.
It was during this second half that I became mesmerized. The strong ensemble's understated acting sneaks up on you, as they transform into their second set of roles. There is a sense of controlled chaos onstage, similar to the feel of watching large rehearsals.
Director Mark Wing-Davey clearly knows what he is doing, and has tackled this beast of a production with such care and love, I feel I owe the production a second viewing. There is not a weak performer, but due to the nature of their parts, Hale Appleman, Dominic Fumusa and Kate Turnbull all deserve special mention (Jesus, Pontius and Mary, in three variations each).
The final act, which Ruhl wrote years after the first two, takes place in Spearfish, South Dakota in the late (but not too late) 20th Century over a number of years. A romance blossoms between the community actors playing Mary and Pontius Pilate, but the Vietnam War gets in the way. We watch Spearfish desperately try to hold onto its Passion Play tradition in the melting pot, hippie United States era. Likewise, Spearfish cannot ignore the affects of the Vietnam War. It is hard to describe, but in this final, dense chapter the correlations to the past are ever-present. And the foreshadowing of the near future is eerily beautiful. I left the theater feeling saddened, yet enlightened, and with a heightened sense of empathy I hope to never let go.