Yale Repertory Theatre, New Haven
What can one say of “Passion Play,” now at Yale Rep’s University Theatre? The term “epic” is bandied about, and indeed it is an epic in terms of length (three-and-a-half hours’ running time), cast (sixteen members), time span (from 1575 to the present day) and staging (one spectacle after another).
Playwright Sarah Ruhl, who is considered one of the hottest new young playwrights and known for an offbeat approach to subject matter, now tackles the “Passion Play” (the story of Christ, the original of which ran through the centuries at Oberammergau, Germany). But she has a good deal more on her mind—and her platter—than that particular phenomenon. Ruhl’s “Passion Play” takes on many eras, many life styles, many issues. Along the way, she tackles Queen Elizabeth, the Nazi regime, anti-Semitism, the Viet Nam War, returning vets, Ronald Reagan, homosexuality, unwanted pregnancies, adultery, mental illness, illusion, disillusion, and the theater itself. “The Passion Play”(with onstage and behind-the-scene dramas) is presented as enacted in Elizabeth England, Nazi Germany, and modern America. (The parallel which comes to mind is Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America,” which is indeed an epic and possibly an influence on this younger playwright.)
Because the staging (courtesy of set designer Allen Moyer, lighting designer Stephen Strawbridge, and sound designer Charles Coes) is so brilliant and performances so convincing, “Passion Play” never bores. Huge transparent fish slide across the stage or actors are lifted high overhead or Viet Nam explodes in smoke and fire. A veritable three-ring circus.
Yes, it is exciting in terms of design and concept, but what is “Passion Play” all about? What is the message, the theme? Ruhl’s play seems to be all over the lot—clear in individual scenes, but confused in its overview. Thanks to director Mark Wing-Davey and to fine performances, individual scenes can be very moving. In the first act, set in Elizabethan England, the Passion Play depicts a perfect Jesus and perfect Mary, while the characters playing those roles experience all-too-human flaws. Their suffering goes on through the ages, while the Oberammergau play remains essentially intact, but reflecting values of each era.
Featured players Joaquin Torres, Nicole Wiesner, Susan Pourfar are all worthy of note in their several roles. And Kathleen Chalfant brings back memories of “Angels in America” as she appears briefly to take on Queen Elizabeth, Adolph Hitler and Ronald Reagan. (Her Hitler cameo is the least effective of the three.) But it is Felix Solis who gives the powerhouse performance of the evening. He plays Pontius Pilate, a betrayed husband, and a returning Viet Nam vet all rolled into one. Changing to a different persona in each act, he grows in stature throughout the centuries until he takes over the stage, providing a much-needed coherence to a scattered piece.
In all, “Passion Play” is a monumental effort, and Ruhl is a challenging playwright, but what’s it all about?
-- -Irene Backalenick
Sept. 27, 2008