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Passion Play: A Cycle in Three Parts
Parallel situations or events (preparation for war, rehearsal chaos, a procession of larger-than-life fishes, a scary red sky) bedevil these troubled Passions. They're played out in a British hamlet in 1575 (where Passion plays are feared as dangerous holdovers from the former Catholic faith), Oberammergau, Germany circa 1934 (where the play's anti-Semitism perfectly complements Nazi propaganda), and Spearfish, South Dakota between 1969 and 1984 (where backstage shenanigans almost erupt in a "crime of passion" play).
Ruhl (whose Clean House also liked to stir things up) tackles many truths here—the unholy marriage of politics and religion, the disconnect between mortals' make-believe and their real motivations, and the self-fulfilling power of a play to alter everyone connected with it. But the overlong, cluttered and scattershot plot, directionless dialogue, quixotic symbol-mongering, kneejerk magic realism, self-indulgent side scenes, and aimless, lazy apostrophes to the audience take a cumulative toll.
The third act self-destructs as it lurches off in a dozen inconclusive directions. Worst of all, we never get a sense of what the Passion play really means to its participants, the benchmark from which we can measure their assorted departures from the dream. Instead we get a toxic fusion of the condescension of Waiting for Guffman with the calculated irreverence of Springtime for Hitler, always minus the fun.
Actor/teacher Mark Wing-Davey knows his way through the dramatic labyrinths of this sprawling and unfocused trilogy but not so well that an audience can't go missing in (the) action. How does Hitler's anti-Semitism fit Queen Elizabeth's anti-Papist rant, then fit Ronald Reagan's genial know-nothingism? It's safer to dwell on such acting epiphanies as Joaquin Torres' questing Jesus, Kristen Bush's very merry Mary, Polly Noonan's "fool of God" village idiot, and T. Ryder Smith's tour de force as the play-acting political icons of their era. These performances, necessarily rich diversions from a squandered script, get us through the 220 minutes without suspending too much disbelief. If only there were real passion in Passion Play.
Links to other reviews of Ruhl works
The Clean House (one of 3 reviews)
Orlando, adaptation of Virginia Woolf's novel
Passion Play (a more favorable take from our DC critic)
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