Sarah Ruhl's Passion Play

© Carol Rosegg

Saturday night took us to see Sarah Ruhl’s Passion Play presented by The Epic Theatre Ensemble at the Irondale Center. The show got a rave in the NY TIMES and we had several friends who were similarly enthusiastic, so while I wasn’t sure what to expect, I went in with very high hopes. So I was more than a little disappointed to find out that Passion Play is, in fact, just a serviceable work of regional theater with good intentions and high aspirations. I mean, it wasn’t that the show was bad – it wasn’t – but it felt perfunctory.

By now you don’t need me to tell you that the show is actually three separate but intertwined plays examining communities presenting Passion Plays. The first is set in England in 1575, the second in Oberammergau, Germany in 1934 and the final one is set in Spearfish, South Dakota in 1969. Each play has some kind of melodramatic plot which is then used as a platform for exploring the “bigger” issues. And it tackles all the big ones – war, love, religious persecution, unjust conflations of war and religion, prejudice, etc. Ruhl sets out to explore pretty much every “important” issue under the sun and everything is represented in this sprawling three-tiered narrative. By the end of the show I felt like had been clobbered over the head with obvious symbolism and not-so-subtle politics.

I don’t think it really needed to be as big and sprawling as it was. It’s not epic like Angels in America – it doesn’t really wrestle with Big Ideas in the same way or with the same rigor. And its not epic like Mnouchkine’s work, which unfolds with the density and complexity of a Russian novel.

Passion Play is actually three slight plays bound together loosely, not one coherent, multilayered, textured tapestry. But I am not going to write at length about it because ultimately it is an issue of taste and I know that for a lot of audiencesPassion Play is a moving and notable experience. But I much preferred Ruhl’s In The Next Room which struck me as having a lighter touch with great impact.

As to taste…..Earlier in the week I had the opportunity to sit in on a rehearsal of ERS‘ version of The Sun Also Rises which will play at Edinburgh this year. It, too, takes on big issues and is highly literate. But with ERS the work is much more subtle and understated as is the acting style.

I think when you get used to the aesthetics of downtown it is very hard to go back to the overly-emotional and demonstrative style of Acting that defines so much of mainstream theater in the regional vein. It just feels phoney and obvious. From Young Jean Lee to ERS to the Wooster Group and more, I’ve grown accustomed to a more laconic and distanced style, one in which less emphasis is placed on Method-style acting and more on blatant performativity. It is increasingly difficult for me to suspend disbelief when I watch actors parade around yelling and shouting and getting all intense.

But I digress. The point is that Passion Play is good regional theater and there is an audience for that. If you expect much more, though, you’ll be disappointed. It has extended through June 5 so there will be time to see it before it closes.

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