Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.

Passion Play, a cycle

Also see Susan's review of Othello

Kelly Brady and
Howard Overshown

Playwright Sarah Ruhl is a highly skilled playwright, as her play The Clean House, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, makes clear. However, maybe she doesn't yet have the skills to produce an epic. Her newest work — Passion Play, a cycle, the season opener at Washington's Arena Stage —is more ambitious than it is coherent.

In this sequence of three plays, which runs more than three and a half hours with two intermissions, Ruhl attempts to use the Passion Play —the dramatic rendering of the story of the trial and crucifixion of Jesus —as a lens to view society in three radically different eras. The first act takes place in an English fishing village in 1575, at a time when the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I is trying to root out the practice of Catholicism. The second visits the world-famous Oberammergau Passion Play in Bavaria in 1934, highlighting Hitler's enthusiastic support for the play's overt anti-Semitism. The third rambles from the post-Vietnam era to the present in a small South Dakota town with its own Passion Play.

Ruhl has written the cycle so the same actors play the same Passion roles throughout the years, specifically Jesus (Howard W. Overshown), Pilate (Felix Solis), the Virgin Mary (Kelly Brady), and Mary Magdalene (Carla Harting). In each era, the actors participating in the Passion Play have differing personal relationships, so offstage lovers in one act may become siblings in another.

Overshown and Solis demonstrate great power, both individually and together: Overshown as a man who would really rather not embody Jesus, describing himself at one point as "an actor who doesn't like being watched"; Solis as a man tortured by the opportunities he doesn't get and the changes he's unable to make.

Director Molly Smith works gamely to bring these disparate elements into a single unified vision, but it isn't always possible. Ruhl tries to incorporate symbolism and imagery to tie together the three plays, but some of them remain puzzling throughout (what power allows a character to turn the sky red, and for what purpose?). Others don't make sense, as when she gives a Vietnam veteran visions that pertain to one of the actor's earlier personalities. The characters are not supposed to be related to each other through the centuries, except by their roles in the Passion drama.

The political overtones of the play come through in Ruhl's decision to bring Elizabeth I, Hitler, and Ronald Reagan onstage, all in the person of Robert Dorfman. While he is suitably haughty as the white-faced Virgin Queen and chilling as Hitler, he misjudges Reagan. Like him or not, the late president was sincere and soft-spoken, not a bug-eyed goof as portrayed here.

The author lays out her symbolism most baldly in her use of a character called the Village Idiot (Polly Noonan), a disheveled child who says all the things no one else wants to hear. The "wise fool" has a long theatrical pedigree, to be sure, but she's hard to take seriously right now in Washington, as a brilliant satire of this type of character is in residence just across the Potomac River: Little Sally in Signature Theatre's Urinetown.

Scott Bradley's ingenious scenic design has numerous hidden features, including a cross that rises from the stage floor and a self-elevating central platform. Joel Moritz has created an atmospheric lighting design, and Linda Cho's costumes comment drolly on their eras.

Arena Stage
Passion Play, a cycle
September 2nd —October 16th
By Sarah Ruhl
Mary 1/Ensemble: Kelly Brady
Ensemble: Parker Dixon
Queen Elizabeth/Hitler/Reagan/Nixon/Ensemble: Robert Dorfman
Director/Ensemble: Leo Erickson
Mary 2/Ensemble: Carla Harting
Visiting Friar/Visiting Englishman/VA 1/Ensemble: Edward James Hyland
Machinist/German Officer/Young Director/Ensemble: Karl Miller
Village Idiot/Violet/Ensemble: Polly Noonan
John/Eric/J/Ensemble: Howard W. Overshown
Carpenter #2/Ensemble: Lawrence Redmond
Carpenter #1/VA 2/Ensemble: J. Fred Shiffman
Pontius/Foot Soldier/P/Ensemble: Felix Solis
Directed by Molly Smith
Kreeger Theatre, Arena Stage, Sixth and Maine avenues S.W.
Washington, DC
Ticket Information: 202-488-3300 or

Photo: Scott Suchman

-- Susan Berlin

Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for D.C.

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