Last night I had the good fortune to be taken to the theatre by a stunning benefactress. After a quick mimosa, we were drawn into a web of politics, religion, and theatricality in Sarah Ruhl's three-play cycle, entitled simply, Passion Play. Currently in production at the Goodman, Passion Play portrays three communities and their passion plays: the first in 1575 northern England; the second in 1934 Oberammergau, Germany; the third beginning in 1969 South Dakota. All three are set on the backdrop of political upheaval.
All three locations have a tradition of passion plays (the passion play of Spearfish, South Dakota was begun by a displaced German actor in the 1940s), and all three are set in times of conflict. The passion play, for those without knowledge of theatre history, has its origins well into ancient ecclesiastical rites, but became especially popular during the Middle Ages. With plague and upheaval everywhere, the guilded (though not often gilded) productions of passion plays were a popular source of hope and the acclamation of a community's faith in the midst of desperate times. One could almost call the production of a passion play in a community a kind of lay rite, a ritual of theatre that empowered ordinary people to do something holy. It is in this context that we follow the key characters in their portrayals of biblical characters (especially prominent are Mary, Pontius Pilate, and Jesus) and in their more "real" lives.
Although the setting of producing a passion play is a constant, the political backdrop of each is unique. Queen Elizabeth's reform of England was in full-swing in 1575; 1934, naturally, is located in the foothills of Hitler's Nazi regime and WWII; and in 1969, there was no part of America not affected by the Vietnam conflict. Three influential and theatrical leaders rise up and claim the stage at crucial moments in each movement. Queen Elizabeth, whose reform of England was the cause of much spilt Roman Catholic blood, figures prominently throughout the cycle. Hitler naturally appears in one movement and makes a small appearance in another. And Ronald Reagan, who eventually inherited the veterans of Vietnam, charms his way into the final piece of the cycle. All three political heads had a flair for theatricality: Elizabeth with her makeup and royal pomp; Hitler, who utilized acting and theatricality to enhance the effectiveness of his speeches; and Reagan the former and charismatic actor.
The cycle is humorous and haunting, tender and tragic, comedic and carnivalesque. Of course Ruhl investigates questions of faith and doubt, of politics and repression and enlightenment. But perhaps the most important question we are initiated into in her cycle is the question she puts in her notes to the cycle. After describing the aforementioned theatrical leaders, Ruhl asks, "But what is the difference between acting as performance and acting as moral action? It is no accident that we refer to theaters of war." Or consider the words Reagan says at one point (loosely quoted), "I think people are afraid of actors. They're afraid we're good at lying. But really we're just extraordinarily good at telling the truth." Again from her notes: "Never have the medieval world and the digital age seemed so oddly conjoined. I'm interested in how leaders use, mis-use and legislate religion for their own political aims, and how leaders turn themselves into theatrical icons."
Although she could use a staff (historical) theologian, Ruhl's cycle is magnificent. Every once in a while a bit of the dilettante in matters religious comes through (I speak as a trained theologian, what can one expect). Even so, the cycle is brilliant in its examination of the intersection of theatricality (performativity?), politics, and religion. A work of art of the highest caliber.
As an added bonus, however, Emily was wise enough to realize the playwright was sitting next to me through the first two movements (only moving to the empty row one down from us for the third). Upon discovering that it was she, the production stage manager, and director (Mark Wing-Davey), I was naturally very pleased to have handed her her waterbottle at one point, which she had forgotten in her previous seat. But in truth it was such a wonderful opportunity to peripherally be informed by their reactions as well. Upon leaving I made a point to thank the director (the playwright was otherwise engrossed in her laptop) for the beautiful event, which I think caught him a bit off guard since he responded with a bemused, "Well...yes...thank you...you're welcome."
So it is with great pleasure that I recommend to you all Passion Play: A Cycle in Three Parts by Sarah Ruhl.
P.S. Should any of you be in the Chicago area to see it at the Goodman, please be advised that the parts of Village Idiot/Village Idiot/Violet, played by Polly Noonan; Pontius the fish gutter/Footsoldier/P, played by Brian Sgambati; and Queen Elizabeth/Hitler/Reagan, played by T. Ryder Smith, are exceptionally wonderfully played.