On April 24th, after a fire alarm went off during tech rehearsal and propelled the fully-costumed cast of Sarah Ruhl’s Passion Play out into the Fort Greene night, a Brooklyn fireman got his chance to thank Jesus personally for all he’d done for humankind. Forty-five minutes and some camera phone pictures later, the church’s facilities manager returned from dinner and turned off the alarm, and everyone went home. Fast-forward three days; it’s the opening night of previews, and two-thirds of the way through the show, the alarm goes off again—this time causing cast, crew, and the entire audience to exit the building.
The actors must have had a show must go on moment, because they bravely proceeded to improvise the play on the steps of the Lafayette Avenue Presybterian Church. Sarah Ruhl was among those present, held acutely by the cast’s powers of invention. “A stage manager used a flashlight to simulate a lighting cue, two actors hoisted up another actor to form a cross…I found it all very moving, because the actors were working with silent agreement with nothing to hide behind, no props, no scrims, no sound cues, no blocking…I will remember the evening for the rest of my life.”
Instinctually, the play put on a play put on a play! It’s not the first time that Passion Play has reminded me of Our Town. The Stage Manager sets the scene for us, shows us the town, the streets, the homes, the life, the death. Everything is enacted. He reminds us, importantly, that we are in the theater, a place that might allow us the mental freedom to connect our provincial daily moments to serious realities. But where Wilder asks for reflection and relation in his town square (under the influence of Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans), Ruhl uses hers almost as a call to arms for individual responsibility in a society plagued by division (yes, ours!). Her Passion Play connects the personal to the political in such a detailed fashion that I could probably make a Venn diagram of the play out of breadcrumbs and twine. (Though as the Village Idiot/Violet says: “The birds ate up / their breadcrumbs. / When people are chasing / you through the forest, / Don’t rely on breadcrumbs.”) Powerfully then, the writing in Passion Play—structurally complex and meta-theatrical as to time, political condition, and character, while employing Ruhl’s cardinal poetic imagery and clean lyric line—is also as straightforward as it could possibly be in a play on this scale.
“I love Thornton Wilder and Gertrude Stein,” Sarah Ruhl writes in an email. “I think sometimes people forget that they were friends and that Wilder was very much an experimental writer. I think it’s fascinating how writers making daring experiments come to be viewed as mainstream after the fact.” It’s a fitting response from a playwright like Ruhl, a Brown graduate and former poet whose substantial accomplishments now include a MacArthur Fellowship and a Broadway debut this past fall of In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play), which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize (her second nod, after The Clean House made her a finalist in 2005). Now, her Passion Play—a three-part, three-and-a-half-hour cycle about the nature of devotion that almost acts as a dowsing rod for community and civic spirit—makes its New York premiere, produced by the Epic Theater Ensemble and directed by Mark Wing-Davey.
The play already has a long history. Ruhl began writing it in graduate school in 2001. Epic read the first two parts, which take place respectively in Elizabethan England and Nazi Germany, in 2004. The third part—set in 1969, 1984, and the present day—takes place during the Vietnam War, Reagan’s America, and Spearfish, South Dakota. It was written in 2006–2007. After premiering at Washington’s Arena Stage in 2005, with subsequent productions at both Chicago’s Goodman Theatre and Yale Rep (the latter two both directed by Wing-Davey), Passion Play is in large part a response to the political climate of the Bush years. But it also seems, like Our Town, to be about theater—or rather, it suggests that the drama of politics lies in moments when the line between authenticity and performance is blurry. Aren’t politicians always performing? (“But what is the difference between acting as performance and acting as moral action?” Ruhl asks in her prologue.)
Zak Berkman, Epic’s Executive Director and co-founder (with Melissa Friedman and Ron Russell) put it another way: “At its heart [the play] is a celebration of the transformational and transcendent experience of theater—the experience of taking on a role, in this case iconic characters of great historical importance, and measuring their lives against yours, their circumstances and choices—and the self-discoveries and powerful questions such a juxtaposition inspires.”
In Passion Play, these historically important characters include Queen Elizabeth, Hitler, and Ronald Reagan, though the three are most often foils for the torment of the central players, the townspeople beholden to their roles in the cherished Jesus narrative. In Part 1, set in a village in Northern England in 1575, John the Fisherman plays Jesus in the village’s threatened passion play (the plays were secularized in the 16th century amid religious conflict, and eventually banned by the Queen in 1575). Mary 1 plays the Virgin Mary, and Mary 2 plays Mary Magdalen, and so on. The characters, who are “thematically consistent if not concretely,” as Epic’s Maryna Harrison put it, are then played by the same actors throughout each section of Passion Play (and so you have the Queen, Hitler, and Reagan all portrayed by T. Ryder Smith). To add to the rhizome, some of the previous productions’ cast are in the Epic production too, most notably the Ruhl veteran Polly Noonan as Village Idiot/Violet. Violet exists to allude to realms beyond. She contains multitudes, if you will: being at once the archetypal clairvoyant (playing with a white ribbon, “Like the white drool of a snake”), living both inside and outside the play, old and young at once, knowing Christ’s lines before he does, embodying the anti-Semitism so present in passion plays, and appearing finally as the child of unknown (but easily figured) parentage.
Paradoxically, Violet is one of the few morally consistent characters, while those in the town passion play exchange suspicion, love, and faith throughout the cycle. “It is safer to suppose a bear a bush than the other way around,” writes Brian Boyd in On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction. While Boyd speaks of agency and perspective between the animate and inanimate, the idea could just as easily apply to Ruhl’s Jesus and Pontius Pilate, who are shifty—Pontius initially wants to play Christ—in their considerations of good and evil; and alternate between positions of strength and weakness, brotherhood and homosexual interest, and their mutual love for Mary. What is constant, instead, is elemental—Pontius traps air in jars in an increasingly reddening sky. What resonates is that the gesture is almost futile, a misshapen romantic effort intersecting a 21st-century countryside, a place where faith is actually on its head and the Tea Party movement is the face of conservatism. On whether the context for Part 3 has changed post-Bush, Ruhl writes: “When I first wrote Part 3 I think its focus had more to do with the Iraq war (using Vietnam as a lens to think about where we are today); and now I think it’s more focused on war’s aftermath.”
In fact, the political context for Passion Play hasn’t changed enough to affect the play. As Berkman states, “Regardless of political leanings, I think everyone would agree that Obama mastered the theater of politics as well as anyone since Reagan. His sets, his entrances, his marketing, and of course his speeches—all portrayed him as more than a man, as a hero, as a savior.” And still, “We are a divided nation,” Ruhl writes in the prologue. “And the more divided we are, the less we talk about what divides us. The left is perceived of as anti-religious ideological secularists; the right as religious zealots . . . . More kinds of devotion would be possible, the less the state controlled religious rhetoric. More devotion, and more conversation about devotion, would be possible with that freedom. To my mind, devotion is like a quality of light—how is it possible to legislate the quality of light? It would be like legislating the invisible moments that happen in a theater. And ultimately, the play is about those moments—about how actors wring moments out of their private lives in order to bear witness in the community.”
Community is a key word in this project. The brilliance of Sarah Ruhl and Epic Theater finding each other resides in the company’s focus on what co-founder Ron Russell recently termed “values-driven theater.” Not your Bush I–era values, to be sure, but those that live in an individual artist’s responsibility to society’s shared consciousness. An Off-Broadway company known for their focus on community-centered practice and their Shakespeare REMIX program, where teaching artists work in the classroom to empower and educate using theater, Epic is also vastly concerned both with developing a diverse audience and a non-competitive atmosphere among theater artists and institutions in New York. For Passion Play, they paired up with the Irondale Center, a theater company located in the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church, an expansive, balconied, patinaed space that should help to change the rules somewhat. As Ruhl commented: “I love that we’re doing Passion Play in a raw space—a wardrobe box becomes a room, a door, a closet, a wagon, a staircase.” Since March 27, Irondale and Epic have extended the Passion Play conversation outward into Brooklyn, surrounding the play with readings and events co-curated by over 40 arts organizations and theater companies, with food and services donated by local businesses. Called The Passion Play Coalition Festival, the topics of religion, politics, and community have been in bold dialogue in Fort Greene.
And so despite the possibility that Epic might be working on its most ambitious project with Passion Play, it certainly aims to create political theater at its most effective; it is made from basically relating. Sarah Ruhl actually grew up in that kind of theater: “…in which something is made out of nothing—a box, a wooden spoon, what-have-you—so that the focus was on the language and the interaction between audience and actor, rather than a lot of expensive machinery.”
Passion Play runs April 27–May 30 at the Irondale Center, Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church, Fort Greene. For more information, please visit: epictheatreensemble.org.