Maev Beatty (photo by Keith Barker)
Drawn out but direct
by Jason Booker
An ambitious American playwright with a style all her own, Sarah Ruhl crafted Passion Play, an epic cycle of three one-act plays, over a 15 year span. The time was clearly necessary as the commissions changed and her life perspectives shifted. A unique writer, Ruhl tends to create her own brand of theatrical magic realism by breaking all the rules: doubling parts and offering outlandishly poetic stage directions that challenge any company that chooses to stage her work. She neatly weaves an intricate world for the audience before ripping out the threads that serve as boundaries; there are no rules allowed in Ruhl’s explorations. While Toronto has previously seen productions both of her Pulitzer-nominated scripts (The Clean House and In The Next Room), the scale of this endeavour goes far beyond her other efforts.
Mounted by three independent theatre companies, this production of her Passion Play bands together some of the most respected and edgy artists in town. Just a look at the directors proves that: Mitchell Cushman of Outside the March (Terminus, Mr. Marmalade), Alan Dilworth of Sheep No Wool (Montparnasse) and Aaron Willis of Convergence Theatre (YICHUD (Seclusion), The Gladstone Variations). Their pedigrees reveal what this production really is: an epic collaboration, wordy and dense, unique, symbolic, reverent, site-driven… a piece like Toronto has not seen before. And a piece that Toronto will talk about for years to come. If ever an audience wants to feel as if they are standing at the edge of a cliff, watching theatrical history being written before their eyes, the milestone show of this decade will be Passion Play.
Each of the three plays of this epic cycle revolves around a Passion Play, portraying the trial, death and resurrection of Christ. While each act can function independently, the strength of the work is when the comparisons can be made. Each play, however, is set in its own distinct period. The first transpires in an Elizabethan village, where superstition and rumours abound, under the rule of a Queen who intends to shut down all Catholic religious presentations. The second occurs in Oberammergau in 1934, where half of the small village participates in the Passion, staged only once a decade. Act Three takes place in Spearfish, South Dakota over 15 years – the same amount of time it took the playwright to compose all three acts. Judging by the number of deliberate repetitions and symbols within the plays, that 15 year chasm seems intentional.
The performances in Passion Play are the stand-outs. Cyrus Lane as the lead, depicting Pontius Pilate, drips sex and fear and menace as the injured fishmonger, the foot soldier and the Vietnam veteran. He questions who is responsible for demanding the innocent man’s death but never fails to include himself as one of the guilty parties. No one here overtly wields power; they simply respond to the machinations from on high. But does that power really rest with the reigning leader, played in three cameo star turns by Maev Beaty? Or are the innocents (the roles played brilliantly by Amy Keating and Nguyen) really corrupt, in sharp contrast with the upright Mary Magdalene of Julie Tepperman who wisely and tenderly shows the way forward? Nevertheless, these characters are always part of a family, a collection of brothers and sisters, dying fathers and unwed mothers that underline how interconnected humanity truly is.
But the biggest challenge of how to make a nearly four hour play work is how to make it all flow in a logical and relevant fashion.
Many of the challenges of connecting these disparate pieces lie in finding the similarities. Act Three features a few repeated passages about wearing socks to bed or how to hold a cigarette but there is no moment or glimpse that runs through each of the three plays, verbal or visual. Some of the interwoven elements bring a smile recalling the last mention while other ideas wrench at the heart as the previous references shift meaning.
But the biggest challenge of how to make a nearly four hour play work is how to make it all flow in a logical and relevant fashion. Unfortunately the scale sometimes overwhelms the individual moments and the symbolism becomes lost as a moment becomes too drawn out. The pace does not remain tight throughout the evening, nor the audience alert, for there are so many balls to juggle. With a chorus deployed to change scenes, which often takes just a bit too long or feels too deliberate when it should be organic and smoothly site-specific, the additional 11 members of the cast occasionally get lost in the shuffle of two- or three-person scenes that ignore the other talented and interesting parts like Richard Binsley’s travelling incognito priest or Jordan Pettle’s directors. The entire show feels overly long and never quite succeeds at entertaining on a grand scale.
Unlike most epics, Passion Play is representational and episodic instead of rhapsodic and religious. That said, these actors and directors and designers have taken a church auditorium and transformed it into a playing space that teleports and transcends everyday lives – just as the Passion is meant to.
Passion Play continues until June 30 2013 at Withrow Park and Eastminster United Church