- The Washington Times - Friday, September 9, 2005

Playwright Sarah Ruhl made the practice of hiring maids a metaphor for our inability to acknowledge the dirt in our lives in the play “The Clean House.” Now, she tackles centuries of world history and the thin line between acting and being in the ambitious three-play work, “Passion Play, a Cycle.”

Using productions of the Passion Play from three different historical epochs — Elizabethan England, 1934 Germany and the late 20th-century American Midwest — as a framing device, Miss Ruhl searchingly explores the inherent theatricality in politics and religion. She does not offer pat answers, but rather provokes endless questions about the nature of man. In her view, we are all born actors, always playing roles.

Arena Stage’s world premiere production, directed by Molly Smith with a flair for both religious pomp and carnival-style hurly-burly, is a potent and rich visual stew of iconic and startlingly original imagery — the scene where a drowned woman lies onstage with a river of water pouring out of her mouth is just one example of the show’s hauntingly beautiful visuals. For each play, set designer Scott Bradley echoes traditional biblical and religious art in the use of the tableaux (which are actually tableaux within tableaux, since the Passion Play is performed in each segment).

The first play, which takes place in 1575 when Queen Elizabeth I (Robert Dorfman) is shutting down productions of “The Passion of Christ,” looks like a page from the Book of Hours, using that medieval celestial blue to show a world caught between the old and the reformed.

The second act transforms the stage into Germany’s pristine forested countryside in 1934, where Hitler (Mr. Dorfman) attends a performance of “The Passion of Christ” at the famed village of Oberammergau.

The final act moves to Spearfish, S.D., the landscape rendered as a lonely line of telephone poles, as a small town puts on the Passion Play in the post-Vietnam War era and Ronald Reagan (Mr. Dorfman) drops by on the campaign trail.

The first two parts of the cycle are the most satisfying, particularly Miss Ruhl’s evocation of a medieval village populated with a goody-goody fisherman playing Jesus (Howard W. Overshown), his resentful hunchback brother (the excellent Felix Solis) who plays Pilate, a Mary (Kelly Brady) who sleeps with all the guys in town, and a Village Idiot (Polly Noonan), who is cannily aware of all that is going on. The villagers may be putting on the Passion Play, but their language and antics are delightfully earthy.

Contrast them to the starchy, pious residents of Oberammergau, Germany, clad in fanciful lederhosen and embroidered folkwear but humorlessly serious about their performances. Although things are not what they seem, as the man playing Jesus (Mr. Overshown) grapples with homosexual feelings — verboten in Nazi Germany — and Mary (Miss Brady) looks like an unapproachable virgin but succumbs to the seductions of an officer (Karl Miller).

The third piece seems the most unfinished and raw. Infidelity, secrets, traumatized Vietnam vets, egotistical actors, and an overall climate of godlessness in 1970s America threaten a small town’s annual production of the Passion Plays. In this segment, the man playing Pilate (Mr. Solis), whose experiences in Vietnam turn him from a family man into a brilliantly babbling drifter, takes center stage.

The ensemble of actors dive into the multiple permutations of their roles with obvious relish, and all are superb. Mr. Dorfman’s deft impersonations of famous figures are electrifying, especially the velvety menace of his Hitler, the haughty command of his Queen Elizabeth, and the hokey folksiness of his Reagan. Mr. Solis pours wounded heart and soul into his various parts, and Miss Noonan’s skewed line readings and eccentric postures give the three renderings of the Village Idiot a pungent, otherworldly eeriness.

This sweeping play bites off quite a lot: sex, temptation, sin, political and religious extremism, post-traumatic stress syndrome, homeless veterans, the supernatural, homosexuality, anti-Semitism, role-playing, public figures and their public images and the importance of theater. A work this sprawling begs comparisons to Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America.” Indeed, Miss Ruhl’s play resembles Mr. Kushner’s masterpiece in its lavish use of language and religious symbols, and the echoes and resonances that inform each part of the trilogy.

Yet, “Angels in America” possesses that rare interplay between the intimate and the epic — it has big, brash ideas and small, exquisite moments. In contrast, “Passion Play, a Cycle” is at this point in its development little more than a passing parade of human history. Miss Ruhl seems to be reaching for everything in this play — a grand pronouncement about America, the separation of church and state and, indeed, mankind as a whole.

What emerges, other than a testament to the fecundity of the playwright’s imagination, is a presentational work, a play about acting that is just an act — all performance, no soul.

***

WHAT: “Passion Play, a Cycle” by Sarah Ruhl

WHERE: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW, Washington

WHEN: 7 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, 1 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through Oct. 16.

TICKETS: $41 to $60

PHONE: 202/488-3300

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