Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Review: (Toronto) Passion Play

Maev Beatty (photo by Keith Barker)

Passion Pulls No Punches
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.

The three acts emphasize that the characters are actors rehearsing and performing the Passion and rarely do they play those sequences in full.

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 three acts emphasize that the characters are actors rehearsing and performing the Passion and rarely do they play those sequences in full. The script intentionally doubles its performers as Andrew Kushnir staying as an altruistic character who portrays Jesus and Mayko Nguyen remains an actor playing the Virgin Mary through all of the settings. Each character also maintains a similar name throughout – from Village Idiot to Violet is not much of a stretch. 

In this production, the first Act is meant to be seen outside in a park. 

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.

In this production, the first Act is meant to be seen outside in a park. Due to the damp weather, rain plans were invoked and the piece was staged at the church intended for Acts Two and Three. In the outdoors, the flat playing style and earnest characters probably present better than they did indoors, nervous and uncertain of their space, confined by the walls and folding chairs. Proscenium staging does not benefit these players of the Passion when they gesticulate largely and refer to a reddening sky.

By Act Two, familiarized with the Passion structure, a more intimate space is created on a thrust stage littered with tree stumps and a nosey British theatre researcher, questioning the German perspective on imitating religion and taking over the family business, whereas Act Three is a runway staging, with cushions for the front row seats. There is no hiding in a balcony for these shows – the audience is front and centre and the show is meant for them. 

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. 

The final hour of performance, set in a modern era, brings the details of the three pieces together in such an innovative way, using props and music and lights and recurring characters, that the slow or predictable natures of the earlier two Acts can almost be forgiven.

Passion Play may not be perfect as a four-hour show – though what would be? – but there are so many memorable moments in this carefully-wrought work that is bound to be spoken of and referred to in the Toronto scene for years to come. On that basis alone, this passion project merits viewing.

Passion Play continues until June 30 2013 at Withrow Park and Eastminster United Church

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are moderated. Please read our guidelines for posting comments.