The intersecting themes of faith, politics and theater are explored in Sarah Ruhl’s epic Passion Play, making its Los Angeles debut in a wonderfully-realized and engaging production by the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble in association with Evidence Room.
Passion Play focuses on the backstories of three productions of said piece, set in three different historical periods: first, in a small village in 1575 England, the year Queen Elizabeth banned such performances; second, in 1934 Oberammergau, Bavaria, just after Hitler’s ascension; and, finally, in Spearfish, South Dakota, starting in 1969 and running to the present. It focuses on the three people who’ve been cast in the key roles in the religious drama: John/Eric/J (Daniel Bess) as Jesus, Mary/Elsa (Dorie Barton) as the Virgin Mary and Pontius/P (Christian Leffler) as Pilate.
In the English story, Mary lusts for fisherman John, but the responsibility of being cast as the savior has inspired John to pursue a holy life. Frustrated, Mary gives herself to Pontius, his dark-souled and jealous brother. When she becomes pregnant, she tells the villagers that it’s a miracle – an immaculate conception caused by her devotion to her role.
In the Bavarian portion, Eric, the gentle actor portraying Jesus in the passion play, is motivated by idealism to join Hitler’s army but is transformed into a cold-blooded soldier who ironically comes for Violet, the “village idiot” – who also happens to be the town’s only Jew.
Finally, in the Spearfish segment, P and Mary are happy newlyweds, but when P is shipped off to fight in Vietnam, it’s J, P’s brother, who comes to offer her comfort. Mary gives birth to a little girl, but she can’t bring herself to tell her husband, back from the war and psychologically damaged, that the child is his brother’s.
Appearing in each story are caricatures of the political leaders of the period. The bewigged, imperious Queen Elizabeth arrives in the English village to stop the “blasphemous” production. Jackbooted Adolf Hitler visits the Bavarian province to ensure that the Jews are being appropriately depicted in their version. And bumbling, pink-cheeked Ronald Reagan attends the play in Spearfish while stumping for his reelection in 1984. Not only are these caricatures amusing, they serve to demonstrate how religion has been used (and misused) by politicians throughout the ages – and how much of politics is theater.
Also running throughout the piece are such religious symbols as fish, serpents and the warnings of an approaching apocalypse. They serve to unify the segments and add an effective touch of surrealism to the proceedings.
This production features some fine acting. Bess, Barton and Leffler do yeoman’s work as the three leads in three different eras, with Leffler’s shattered Vietnam vet in the Spearfish story especially affecting. Brittany Slattery, as Violet/The Village Idiot, brings an offbeat dignity to a role that could be sappy. Amanda Troop is fine as Mary’s close friend, also named Mary and cast as Mary Magdalene in all three productions.
Shannon Holt hams it up as Elizabeth, Hitler and Reagan – but it’s premium ham. As the Queen and the Fuhrer, she snaps her lines with authority, staring piercingly at the audience and indulging in long pauses to allow the weight of the words to sink in, regardless of how ridiculous they may be. And when her doddering Reagan loses track of what he’s saying, he falls back on one or another of his famous catchphrases (“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”) to incite the crowd. Other cast members also impress in multiple roles, including Tobias Baker, John Charles Meyer, Dylan Kenin, Bill Brochtrup and John Prosky.
The production is solid, too. Bart DeLorenzo’s sharp direction keeps the action moving nicely on Frederica Nascimento’s spare and effective set, ably supported by John Ballinger’s music and sound design and Michael Gend’s lighting. Raquel Barreto’s evocative costuming nicely captures the look of each of the time periods.
When Passion Play made its off-Broadway debut in 2010, it ran for three hours and 40 minutes with two intermissions. The Odyssey production has been trimmed down somewhat, to two hours and 50 minutes with one intermission, but even at this length, it never drags or overstays its welcome.
Passion Play plays through March 16 at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 South Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m., with additional performances on select Wednesdays and Thursdays. Reservations can be made online or by calling (310) 477-2055.