Yale Repertory Theatre

Rosalind Friedman

Sarah Ruhl’s Passion Play; directed by Mark Wing-Davey, is a combination of pageant and polemic; this three and one half hour work, consisting of three separate but related one hour acts with two intermissions, contains many wonderful illusions and allusions. Magical red skies, capturing air in a jar, Adam and Eve and the serpent, yes, the flowing water that the playwright so loves: It is all there. The 16 characters from medieval to modern are compelling, acted with verve by Joaquin Torres, a tall handsome John, the Fisherman, who makes perfect Jesus figure; the brooding, angry Felix Solis, Pontius, the Fish-gutter, Keith Reddin, the Director of the Passion Play within Passion Play, the luminous Susan Pourfar, whose smile shines so beautifully, and the spirited Polly Noonan, the Village Idiot and Violet, a Holocaust victim.

Serving the play well is the set by Allen Moyer, (Associate Des-Warren Karp) lit by Stephen Strawbridge, bleached wood moveable walls and a very long table surrounded by Ruppert Bohle’s detailed projections high above.(Sound- Charles Coes) This set must depict: A village in Northern England, 1575; Oberammergau, Bavaria, 1934, and Spearfish, South Dakota, 1969, 1984, and the present day. Ilona Somgyi’s Costumes from colorfully tacky for the Passion Play to white loin cloths for Jesus, to Queen Elizabeth’s traditional get-up are effective. (Only one quibble: Ronald Reagan should be wearing a brown suit.) There are also cartoon-like giant see–through fish and model sailing ships which move through the play.

The heart of Passion Play is to expose the history and hypocrisy of the long-reaching theatrical event performed before a massive audience that reenacts the story of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and ascendancy. Ruhl takes us behind the scenes, the rehearsals, to meet the townspeople who devote their lives to playing their parts from old England to Germany and finally to South Dakota. Against this, Ruhl juxtaposes the imposing figures of Queen Elizabeth, Hitler and Ronald Reagan, all played by the magnificent Kathleen Chalfant, who interestingly made her name in Angels of America. This production reminds us most of Tony Kushner and that show. For what Sarah Ruhl is doing is telling a painful story on a grand scale, and she has almost succeeded.

I found Passion Play particularly disturbing, knowing that not only in Oberammeregau, Germany, but in our own America, there are performances that accuse the Jews over and over again of killing Christ. The Playwright refutes this somewhat in the last act, when Pontius, now in the role of a returning soldier who has witnessed horrors, refuses to say his lines and throws the Passion Play in South Dakota into disarray. While I was happy it happened, it came too late in the play.

It is impossible in a few short minutes to discuss every aspect of Passion Play. Let us just say, if you are planning to see it- go rested.

This review originally aired on WMNR 88.1FM FINE ARTS RADIO 

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