Jesus (Joaquín Torres) learns his lines. Photo from goodmantheatre.org
Chicago's reputation as a theater town made it imperative for me to see a show when I visited last week. I'd first thought I'd look somewhere other than the big regional theatre, the Goodman--maybe Steppenwolf or Lookingglass? But, ironically, Steppenwolf was doing The Crucible, that regional-theatre staple...and the Goodman was doing the big, new, exciting show: Passion Play: a cycle by Chicago native Sarah Ruhl.
According to Ruhl's playbill essay, she "started writing this play ten years ago after rereading a childhood book which includes an account of Oberammergau in the early 1900s." I'm pretty sure I know what book she means--Betsy and the Great World, part of the classic Betsy-Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace--because it made an impression on me, too. When Betsy goes to see the famous German passion play, everyone in the book knows exactly what "Oberammergau" signifies, and treats the play as a great and holy effort--meanwhile, I'd never heard of it, and I was shocked to learn that the actor who played Jesus would willingly be crucified, onstage, for fifteen minutes!
Ruhl saw potential in this for writing a play that would explore religion and politics, art and life; big subjects, which she handles adroitly. The "cycle" has three acts, each set in a different time and place: Elizabethan England, where the Queen is cracking down on Catholic rituals like passion plays; 1934 Oberammergau, when the Nazis have just seized power; and South Dakota during the Vietnam War and its aftermath.
The play is a backstage drama (like many theatre folk, I've got a soft spot for this genre) where in three different eras, three different sets of relationships are affected by current events and by the play that all the characters are working to perform. This multilayered set-up provides a real challenge for actors. For instance, the same actress (Kristen Bush) plays the Virgin Mary, as well as the woman portraying the Virgin Mary in the passion play, in all three acts. But her relationships to the other characters shift from act to act. In a sense, then, she's playing six different roles--two in each act, onstage and offstage! However, all of the actors at the Goodman were very good: I especially liked how Brian Sgambello (Pilate) and Joaquín Torres (Jesus) slightly altered their physicalities from act to act. Also, because the anti-hero is usually more interesting than the straightforward hero, Passion Play's sympathies lie with the Pilates of this world, not the Jesuses.
If that sounded confusing, don't worry: this concept is much more complicated to explain than to watch. At the Goodman, the play was smoothly directed by Mark Wing-Davey: the set seemed plain at first but interesting elements popped out of it as needed, and the large cast (11 speaking actors plus 5 silent supernumeraries) moved as a fluid ensemble.
The Elizabethan first act of Passion Play is terrific--funny, intelligent, moving, with characters that you care about and Ruhl's trademark poetic dialogue. In fact, I'd even call it a perfect 55-minute play. And those are hard to write: I can think of perfect 15-minute plays and perfect 2-hour plays, but not another perfect hourlong play. In 55 minutes, this act covers a lot of ground, and ends before the themes become redundant.
The second segment of the play (Nazi Germany) is much weaker, and that's a pity, because it probably has the richest material to explore. Should it have been a full-length instead? Here, the actor who plays Pilate is a German soldier, and the actor who plays Jesus is his lover. Provocative stuff, but I don't think Ruhl made palpable the experience of being a gay man in Hitler's army, or even a gay man in the '30s. The study guide mentions that the "Night of the Long Knives"--when Hitler purged the Nazi ranks of all "threats," including homosexuals like Ernst Röhm--occurred in 1934, but this important information is not worked into the play. Another storyline, in which the actress playing the Virgin Mary gets hit on by a Nazi officer, doesn't go anywhere. If it's an attempted comment on the role of women in the Third Reich, much more could have been done with this theme.
Pilate (Brian Sgambati) proposes marriage to the Virgin Mary (Kristen Bush), while Queen Elizabeth (T. Ryder Smith) blesses them.
Thankfully, Act 3 is a lot better. Spanning several years in the 1970s and 1980s, it feels like a bit of a departure for Sarah Ruhl: more contemporary and with plainer dialogue than she usually writes. (The Clean House is ostensibly contemporary, but set in a "metaphysical Connecticut." Passion Play creates an all-too-real South Dakota.) Usually Ruhl's dialogue gets noted for its lyricism and quirky turns of phrase, but when that gets stripped away, as in the South Dakota scenes, you realize that she is a very strong dramatic writer. For instance, I loved an exchange where one character accuses another of belittling him by saying "actually" all the time--it got me to see things differently, since now I'm hyper-aware of when I say "actually"! And I'm glad to discover for myself that there's more to Sarah Ruhl than her vivid and whimsical imagination--she's got a damn solid technique too.
A minor irritant: in a scene set in 1984, a character we know is 14 years old (we know she was born in 1970) says she's in "sixth grade"--but most kids are 11 or 12 in sixth grade. She even talks rather babyishly for an 11-year-old. Would it have been that hard for the girl to say, instead, that she was in "eighth grade" and have slightly more mature dialogue?
A bigger problem: Though, as I said, Passion Play is less whimsical than other Ruhl plays (no one turns into an almond or dies of laughter here), at the end she brings out the old whimsy. I can tell it's supposed to be lyrical, spectacular, and literally "uplifting," but it just seems to come out of nowhere. The earlier parts of the script do not seem to lead to this conclusion, and it feels like a pasted-on happy ending. Actually.