The passion of Christ as played out in iconography and theater since the beginnings of Christendom is terrifying, controlling, inflammatory (think of the dreary, racist 2004 Mel Gibson movie). But in Sarah Ruhl's poetic and sly vision, the Passion is also hilarious. It's still the story of Christ, for God's sake, nailed to the cross, the principles still include shady Romans in robes and Jews in tallises, but the difference is, this play asks key questions. And it also entertains.
Developed over years from a two-act version to the current Epic Theater Ensemble production in Brooklyn -- at the Irondale Center, within the deconstructed walls of a former Sunday school, part of a Presbyterian church -- this daunting epic-length play of three and half hours flies by, thanks to the superb ensemble including Dominic Fumusa, fine in a variety of roles including a Vietnam vet and Polly Noonan, witty as the village idiot, under the direction of Mark Wing-Davey.
Three sets of amateur actors perform a passion play: Act I opens in a village in Northern England in 1575, under Queen Elizabeth's rule, Act II jumps to 1934 Bavaria during Hitler's regime, and then Act III, to Spearfish, South Dakota, 1969, and Reagan era 1984; Ruhl's Passion is layered, asking, what does it mean to play these iconic figures? The virgin, the martyr, Pontius Pilate: how do these roles impress themselves upon the actors who repeat their performances year after year, imprinting their psyches just as matters of religion interweave with the inner world of imagination and the outer one of politics.
Sight gags, flying saints, translucent fish, snakes, all manner of theatrical amusement is deployed within the gym-like space, the cross's formidable "INRI" on one side and a menacing Nazi banner on the other. One of the funniest scenes takes place in the Garden of Eden with actors, attired as naked, attaching fig leafs to wooly genital hair. And the women, the two Marys, (Kate Turnbull and Nicole Wiesner) go gaga over Hale Appleman's "J," hot in his slipping loincloth, as he gets nailed, again. T. Ryder Smith as powdered and pearled Queen Elizabeth, mustachioed Hitler, and apple-cheeked Reagan provides the necessary imperious airs.
At the play's opening on Wednesday where actors Philip Seymour Hoffman and Daphne Rubin-Vega partied with playwrights Tracy Letts and Winter Miller, producers exulted at the coup. Now that Sarah Ruhl is, well, Sarah Ruhl -- her current play, In the Next Room (or, the vibrator play), nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play -- Lincoln Center and Manhattan Theater Club wanted to debut Passion Play. But Ruhl made clear that she wanted a building that was not a theater per se, but a historically relevant structure, and she wanted everyone to be able to attend. To that end, some tickets can be purchased for $5.
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