The Playgoer: Sarah Ruhl's "Passion Play"

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Monday, May 24, 2010

Sarah Ruhl's "Passion Play"

One of the least constructive forms of criticisms is to hold forth on what you think a playwright should have written rather than what they did write.  Reviews that essentially rewrite a play reveal only the personal quirks of the critics instead of helping the reader grapple with the play at hand.

So that said...let me get out of the way all the things I wish Sarah Ruhl's "Passion Play" were and how disappointed I was that it wasn't.

The play's basic concept is irresistible to a theatre history geek like myself.  It is a trilogy of one-acts, each about people performing the Passion Play in a different time and place: in Elizabethan England, where such performances are about to be banned by the monarch as a vestige of Popery; in 1930s Germany, where the otherwise secular Nazis exploited the anti-Semitism of the Passion's crucifixion narrative; and in post-Vietnam South Dakota, USA, where a cheesier theme-park style derivative of the play helps usher in the age of the "Moral Majority."

Such a scenario raises my expectations that I will see something about the meaning of theatre to different communities across time.  As well as the meaning of religion.  Also--the relation between theatre and The State; the specifics of the gospels themselves and how their meaning changes for different eras and audiences; and, well, just the good old magic of theatre.

I'm sure Sarah Ruhl had many of these themes in mind while writing the play.  But for me, they don't really show much, either in the dialogue or the action.  Instead what we get is three very different stories ("backstage dramas" if you will) for which the Passion is often just a backdrop to more internal conflicts of the particular characters.  In Act I (the Elizabethan episode), the woman playing Mary is caught between the man playing Jesus, who is respectfully devoted to her, and the man playing Pilate, who lusts after her and knocks her up.  In Act II (the Nazi episode) the Pilate and Jesus actors are secretly gay lovers (one flees, one stays and joins the party) and the company's one Jew is taken to nearby Dachau.  Act III's "Morning in America" shows one actor (Pilate, again) shipped off to Vietnam, returning with severe PTSD, only to find his fellow actor (Jesus, again) carrying on with his wife and selling out to TV.

In themselves, these are not bad little one-acts.  But so often, their historical settings (and the presence of the Passion) seemed incidental to what they were really about.  Surprisingly the most successful of the three acts at this is the last, where Ruhl poignantly juxtaposes the soldier's decline with the country's emerging Reaganite whitewashing optimism.  And in probably the best use of the actual Passion Play, we see him return to his role as Pilate, only to freak out Lady Macbeth-style during the "I wash my hands of this" scene, imagining blood instead of water in the basin.

But moments like that which fully exploit the details of the Passion narrative are surprisingly rare.  And I could just as easily imagine these three stories dramatized without the presence of Passion Play.  Again, not to rewrite Ruhl, but how fascinating it would have been to see, say, the same scene from Passion reenacted in each act in a vastly different way.  And while we do get the gospel-like themes of betrayal and martyrdom in each of the stories, the direct parallels with the Passion are always left for us to figure out.  Maybe that's sublime subtlety on Ruhl's part--but I prefer my theatre not to pull its punches.

Passion Play's other tease is political.  This is the most outwardly political play Ruhl has written.  But while her introductory program notes are full of requisite Bush-bashing, her play constantly sidesteps the nitty gritty of her stories' political implications.  Nowhere is this more evident than in what should be the play's biggest coup de theatre--the recurring appearance of the autocratic leader at the center of each era.  While the grand surprise entrances of Elizabeth I, Adolf Hitler, and Ronald Reagan (all played by the same actor--in this production the superbly creepy T. Ryder Smith) should all climax their respective acts, the writing in each case is notably anticlimactic.  By Reagan's turn, the idea becomes a gimmick, a winking joke, rather than a dramaturgically galvanizing device.  Each of the three monologues drifts in and out of historical trivia related to the figure's performative aspects--Elizabeth's obsession with white facepaint; Hitler's hammy showmanship; Reagan's showbiz background--which makes sense, sure.  And Ruhl certainly illustrates their political ruthlessness and/or cluelessness (Elizabeth's police state; Hitler's genocidal dreams; Reagan's confusion of war with war movies).  But these moments still came off to me as unfocused and, frankly, wasted opportunities.

The truth is, as much as she may try here, Ruhl does not seem to be an innately political playwright.  Most writers taking on the subject of 19th century doctors inducing orgasm in their female patients with electrical devices would capitalize on the situation's inherent narrative of misogynist exploitation.  Not Ruhl, whose In the Next Room: or, The Vibrator Play--as likeable as it is--plays as a coy sex comedy where men are just silly asses out of touch with their feelings.  Perhaps the belittling of the oppressor is a more secure feminist (or postfeminist) statement.  But again, a missed opportunity, I felt.

In Passion Play we get snapshots of politics and art colliding.  In a speech taken mostly verbatim from history, Hitler addresses the Oberammergau about the need for the Passion's demonizing of the Jews.  But why does a similar sense of danger not pervade the Elizabethan episode, where performing the Passion Play is about to become a banned, religiously heretical and politically subversive act?  In Act III our tortured Vietnam Vet experiences conflict mostly in his head, not with the state; yes, there is an interesting scene at a VA hospital, but even there he is treated rather civilly, rather than encountering the indifferent bureaucracy many real life vets did suffer.

The very subject and form of Passion Play also cries out for a playwright intensely concerned with religion itself.  But Ruhl seems neither especially political or religious.  I don't know anything about her personal spiritual beliefs or practices.  All I know is that the Passion narrative raises so many theological and deeply communal questions that are only addressed here in the most abstract terms.  (Betrayal, Martyrdom, Spirit vs Flesh, etc.)  When acted out on stage, the scenes from the Passion Plays rarely resonate and touch us the way these plays were meant to.  They rarely transcend Ruhl's use of them for simply a framing concept.  They are not allowed to work their timeless stage magic on us and turn an audience of hip 21st century secularists (like me) into believers just for a minute.  That's because the script itself seems written with an air of too much hip secularism.  Ruhl's tendency to waver between ironic shrug and unabashed sentimentality leaves little room for the tragic poetry of the Bible.

Finally, there's another dramaturgical device that ultimately stymies the play: Ruhl's insistence that the same actors play basically the same roles from act to act, and that they keep being identified with the Passion roles of Jesus, Pilate, and Mary.  When it works, we get a nice long story-arc of basically a 400-year love triangle between the three.  But the unintended effect is of a numbing sameness to all three playlets--when jarring shaking up is sometimes badly needed.  I would have been much more interested in seeing the casting overturned in each act to make the play-within-the-play seem as different as possible.  Instead, over three and a half hours I got quite frankly bored watching the same three actors play out similar scenarios.  Adding to the similarity are the bare-bones design and production values--tastefully minimalist and perhaps budgetarily required, but still barely changing from one act to the next.  In retrospect, it is the Elizabethan Act I--played in the same flat American accents as the rest and speckled with inconsistently anachronistic props and costumes--that suffers most from this approach.  If each setting were more aggressively made strange from each other and highly specific to its era (i.e. alienated in the truly Brechtian sense) the overall effect would have been much richer and thought-provoking.

I will say, though, that in the production Dominic Fumusa's brooding intensity as the "Pilates" nearly justifies the concept--especially in Act III, when his frightening delivery of the character's shell-shocked rages do more to puncture the "Morning in America" myth than any of Ruhl's prose.

Fumusa and Ryder are the standouts of the otherwise able cast.  Mark Wing Davey's sparsely beautiful  staging employs much rough magic and dreamy atmosphere.  And for the little Epic Theatre Ensemble that mounted this huge project--at the splendid Irondale Center in a Brooklyn church--this NYC premiere of a major play (and a majorly difficult play) by a major new writer is a triumph, after a decade of tireless work and rising from nowhere.  I say the play is a "major" one quite sincerely.  Our playwrights unfortunately are not often allowed to be as ambitious as this.  I'm sure many others found these ambitions fulfilled and, as I said above, this ultimately boils down to what we each want out of the play's concept.  And for myself, it was a play that did not live up to its premise.

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