Act one takes place in a small village in Northern England in 1575, around the time Queen Elizabeth I (Shannon Holt) has banned passion plays altogether. The town still intends to presents its play, however, as the Director (John Prosky) points out, because God had spared the town from the plague. Pious fisherman John (Daniel Bess) plays Jesus, and he's hated by his brother Pontius (Christian Leffler), who plays his namesake. Pontius secretly loves Mary 1 (Dorie Barton) who's smitten with John, which complicates things for them all. When Mary 1 gets pregnant, however, she claims it as a virgin birth so she can keep her role as the Virgin Mary. Act two moves things to Oberammergau, Germany, in 1934, where the spectacle of a passion play put on mostly by Nazis is underway. It has the blessing of Hitler (Holt), who shows up on a campaign publicity tour, but some, such as the Visiting Englishman (Bill Brochtrup) wonder that others don't see the irony of it. Eric (Bess), who's taking the role of Christ over from his ailing father, is jealous of his Foot Soldier (Leffler) friend's being in the army. He's also attracted to him, a dangerous situation in a country whose intolerance will soon reach fever pitch.
Act three takes place in Spearfish, South Dakota, from 1969 till the current day, as the traditional amateur passion play becomes more and more professional. Their Jesus, J (Bess), is now a Hollywood actor and the Young Director (Dylan Kenin) isn't just the local guy who's been doing it for decades. Reagan (Holt) stops by to use the play to prop up his standing in the Christian community, but the story mainly follows P (Leffler). He used to play Pontius in the play, but his experiences in the Vietnam war have scarred him emotionally and his life has fallen apart. He's estranged from his wife Mary 1 (Barton), whose highway toll collector sister Mary 2 (Amanda Troop) has all the faith he lacks. His redemption may come in the form of his daughter Violet (Brittany Slattery), who still loves him in spite of his troubles and failings.
Leffler is excellent throughout, particularly good at expressing his characters' pain and confusion: He's not the man playing Jesus but the one who actually feels crucified all the time. The moment where P declares in act three that he doesn't want Mary's pity, that he only wants a shower, is simply heartbreaking. In years of performing with Evidence Room, this is the finest performance I've ever seen him give, which is saying something. Bess, always terrific, continues to be so here, evincing genuine piety as John and oozing smarminess as the cocky J. Barton impresses as 1575 Mary 1, who just doesn't like to sleep alone, and even more so as the modern day version, who tries to be a loving wife to P but is sorely tried.
Holt is amazing as her trio of rulersgoofily imperious as the Queen, aggressive as Hitler, and loopy as Reaganand her every appearance in the show is a treat. Slattery is sweetly comic as the Village Idiot in the first two acts and moving as Violet in the concluding act, effectively portraying the latter role at multiple ages. Troop excels but is most memorable as Mary 2 in the final act, playing what could be a stereotype of a true believer and bringing dignity and decency to the part. Brochtrup is dryly amusing as the Visiting Englishman and equally good as an endangered friar in act one, and Prosky is briskly funny as the Director, particularly so as the haughty German version in act two. Finally, Kenin brings palpable menace as the German Officer in the second act and credible frustration as the Young Director.
Director Bart DeLorenzo, perhaps the best director currently working in Los Angeles, doesn't disappoint here. The staging is graceful, the performances are well judged, and the hallucinatory or visionary moments (for which DeLorenzo has a real talent) are lovely. Ruhl sets herself a large challenge with this play, and it's to her considerable credit that it mostly works. The characters are interesting and the situations are compelling, and the dialogue crackles with wit or pathos. The play's only problem is that meaning doesn't accumulate through the three acts, which makes the conclusion less powerful than it should have been. Also, the repeated symbolism of fish dreams and red skies didn't add much significance to meyour mileage may differ. Frederica Nascimento's tri-part set of a forest, stage and backstage area is uncluttered and effective, and Raquel Barreto's costumes are varied and splendid.
Overall, Passion Play is an excellent and memorable production, well worth the time of any theatre lover.
Passion Play runs at the Odyssey Theatre through March 16. For tickets and information, see www.OdysseyTheatre.com.
Odyssey Theatre Ensemble and Evidence Room present Passion Play by Sarah Ruhl. Directed by Bart DeLorenzo. Stage Manager Carol Solis; Set Design Frederica Nascimento; Lighting Design Michael Gend; Costume Design Raquel Barreto; Assistant to Costume Designer Rachel Clinkscales; Composer & Sound Design John Ballinger.