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‘Passion Play’ mixes suds and symbols

Pass2051210_optSarah Ruhl triptychs and falls in ambitious drama of church, state and theater

BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
NEWJERSEYNEWSROOM.COM
OFF BROADWAY REVIEW

Author Sarah Ruhl has worked intermittently on "Passion Play" for at least a dozen years. In the interim, with "The Clean House," "Eurydice" and "In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play" among other works premiering to her award-winning credit, Ruhl has dawned as a highly promising playwright.

Opening Wednesday at the Irondale Center in Brooklyn after incarnations at the Goodman Theatre and Yale Rep, "Passion Play" is an overlong, weighty event unlikely to enhance Ruhl's growing reputation.

The drama is a three-decker saga involving the simple souls who stage religious pageants about the last days of Christ. The first episode is set in provincial England in the 1570s. The second occurs during the Oberammergau festival in Germany in 1934. The final act transpires in Spearfish, South Dakota late in the 20th century.

Pass3051210_optFor all of Ruhl's ambition to study how religion and politics uneasily mix, "Passion Play" really turns out to be little more than several backstage soap operas freighted with religious and political symbolism. All sorts of thwarted romances, sibling rivalries, intrigues and deranged personalities seethe as the actors - moonlighting peasant or working class people -- practice their parts and sometimes confuse their reality.

Keep an eye out for meaningful detail amid all the suds: The village idiot winds up enacting the Virgin Mary. The Vietnam vet playing Pontius Pilate can't wash the blood off his hands. Stuff like that.

Each unhappy story climaxes when a god-like head of state arrives - Queen Elizabeth to ban the villagers' performance in 1575 and can you guess who shows up in 1930s Bavaria to discuss Jews?

Phew. Talk about schematic as well as symbolic. Director Mark Wing-Davey's atmospheric staging is way cool but more than three and a half hours of "Passion Play" is two hours too many. Still, the director and his designers mine some striking visuals from Ruhl's turbulent though not terribly profound triptych.

Pass1051210_optComical business with an angel-hoisting machine and a resurrection tableau provides some laughs while a dream sequence involving a school of giant blue fish is beautifully realized. Vigorously staged among the ecclesiastical remnants of a former Sunday school hall of Victorian vintage and expansive scale, Wing-Davey's production lends some sense of mystery and spontaneity to the proceedings.

The acting by an 11-member company is mostly indifferent. Sharp exceptions are Keith Reddin as three contrasting (but eventually distraught) pageant directors and T. Ryder Smith's depiction of an elegantly mincing, menacing Queen Elizabeth, among other supreme leaders.

A worthwhile idea possibly muddled from too many rewrites by an author still forging her craft and voice, "Passion Play" is a disappointment. But at least the ever-enterprising Epic Theatre Ensemble gives Ruhl's semi-early drama the inventive production its ambitious scope deserves.

"Passion Play" continues through May 30 at the Irondale Center, 85 S. Oxford St., Brooklyn. Call (866) 811-4111 or visit www.epictheatreensemble.org.

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