It’s been awhile since I can honestly say I was emotionally overwhelmed by a night of theater. There are so many thoughts wandering in and out of my mind that I hardly know where to begin except to say that religion, politics and theater collide superlatively under the imaginative and quick-paced direction of Bart DeLorenzo in the Los Angeles premiere of PASSION PLAY by Tony and two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee Sarah Ruhl, kicking off the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble‘s 45th Anniversary Season in a co-production with Evidence Room.
Inspired by the historic festivals where everyday citizens came together to elevate their communities by staging the death and resurrection of Christ, Ruhl’s wildly ambitious triptych spins a funny and lusty tale of community spirit, individual morality, and global politics in a three-hour production that seems to fly by in half that time.
Sarah Ruhl began writing PASSION PLAY while she was studying for her master’s degree at Brown University, under the tutelage of Pulitzer winner and renowned writing teacher Paula Vogel. “I started writing this play after re-reading a childhood book which includes an account of Oberammergau in the early 1900s,” Ruhl writes in an introductory note. “In this old fashioned narrative, the man who played Christ was actually so holy as to have become His living embodiment. The woman who played Mary was, in real life, just as pure as the Virgin. I started thinking, how would it shape or misshape a life to play a biblical role year after year? How are we scripted? Where is the line between authentic identity and performance? And is there, in fact, such a line?”
The three-part saga follows three acting troupes as they stage a classical passion play at different moments in history, transporting audiences first to 16th century England, where Queen Elizabeth threatens to shut down a small town’s production; then to Nazi Germany, where Adolf Hitler’s arrival at the famous Oberammergau Passion Play influences the lives of its cast; and finally to Spearfish, South Dakota in 1984, as a local production becomes a campaign stop for a famous actor-turned-President running for re-election.
In each act, town members gather to commemorate the martyrdom of Christ, and the proceedings reflect Ruhl’s trademark blending of philosophical query and light-spirited wit that will fill your head with fleeting moments of wonder and introspection. This is truly thought-provoking theater at its best.
But the actors we meet are not the holier-than-thou type as during each time period, the actress playing The Virgin Mary/Mary 1 (Dorie Barton) manages to have affairs that lead to children out-of-wedlock. The actors playing Jesus and Pontius (Daniel Bess and Christian Leffler, respectively) are brothers in real life, both acting in the community theater companies and in love with the actress playing Mary. These three actors embody their characters with such depth of expression as they move through time, in and out of romantic triangles, that the line between authentic identity and performance is truly smudged.
This is especially true in the South Dakota company as they move from 1969 to 1984, dealing with the ramifications of the Vietnam War affecting both society, the theater company, and especially the actors. Special kudos go to Christian Leffler for his gut-wrenching and then ongoing struggles as a foot soldier dealing with the horror and then aftermath of battle. As was true for so many returning Vietnam Vets, the man who left his family behind was not the man who returned.
There is a moment on the battlefield when Queen Elizabeth (Shannon Holt) appears to Leffler, telling him, “Never trust a leader who won’t fight with you.” Holt begs the question in her remarkable portrayals of both Hitler and Reagan, giving us not caricatures but honest representations of the duality behind their public speeches. She steals every scene and will leave you breathless.
Each of the theater troupes presented throughout the time periods are authentically brought to life, sharing all their human trials and tribulations as well as their innermost self-doubting and spiritual questioning. Every actor in the company deserves much praise for their exceptional contributions to the production: Bill Brochtrup (Visiting Friar/Visiting Englishman/VA Psychiatrist), Dylan Kenin (Machinist/German Officer/Young Director), John Prosky (Director), the waif-like and utterly charming Brittany Slattery (Village Idiot/Violet), Amanda Troop (Mary 2), carpenters Tobias Baker and John Charles Meyer, and ensemble players Jason Liska and Beth Mack.