Our tale opens with a handsome young man having his measurements taken as he stands against an enormous wooden cross. Since the man has long hair, is shirtless, bearded and standing with arms outstretched, since our evening is titled “Passion Play,” it’s a safe assumption that the man (actor Daniel Bess) represents Christ. And indeed he does, although in the three-part time- and globe-hopping odyssey fashioned by Sarah Ruhl, audiences actually see very minimal depiction of the martyrdom of the Christ which “The Passion” depicts.
No. Of more interest to the playwright are the actors and the socio-historical context within which a group of players operate while performing “The Passion” in Elizabethan England, Hitler’s Germany and America from Vietnam to the present day. Anybody who has ever worked or admired the repertory format – or for that matter, the institution of live theater in general – should certainly appreciate the work of Bart DeLorenzo’s production of “Passion Play.” Superbly cast, inventively staged and paced, this co-production of the Odyssey Theatre and DeLorenzo’s Evidence Room is a rare opportunity to see a difficult work by one of America’s most talented contemporary playwrights.
For all its many offerings, however, “Passion Play” is a mixed bag. Ruhl has written a three-part saga which might do better as a two evening experience rather than a nearly three hour marathon. Granted, at this duration, nobody is wading into Tony Kushner territory, and the structuring and the casting ensure that the three parts of this tale speak to each other. But the more deeply historic parts have more heft. Part three, set in and around the long-running Passion performed in Spearfish, South Dakota, is the evening’s weakest segment. “Passion Play” takes on questions of human and political identity, faith and social responsibility, a well stocked and occasionally unwieldy stew. When you have Elizabeth I tracking a Vietnam vet overseas, picking up his discarded semi automatic weapon, and kind of knowing how it works, perhaps things are a bit off the rails, even for a Sarah Ruhl.
Amidst the ideas, there are also flesh and blood characters to be reckoned with, some of whom we already know. We encounter and are harangued by no less a trio than the aforementioned Virgin Queen, Adolf Hitler and Ronald Reagan (all of whom are played by the prodigiously talented Shannon Holt.) And we have people whose embodiments – across the ages – of the Virgin Mary (Dorie Barton), Pontius Pilate (Christian Leffler), Mary Magdalene (Amanda Troop) and Christ himself (Bess) lead to some elaborate psychological entanglements.
Love triangles, too. In 1579 Lancashire, Mary (Barton) is not so secretly in love with the play’s Jesus: John the fisherman (Bess), to the point she even asks to switch roles with Mary Magdalene (Troop). This is not to be. Besides, John is so devoted to his faith (no easy thing since the Queen has all but abolished Catholicism) and to enacting Christ that he can’t think of any woman in that way. His earthier cousin Pontius, however (Leffler) has no such moral obstacles, and Pontius hungers for the lonely Mary. A Visiting Friar (Bill Brochtrup) is secretly touring the area to meet and keep faith with any secret Catholics. He proves a fitting go-to man when Mary becomes pregnant and will go to unusual lengths to keep her role.
Roles carry over, but dynamics are shuffled for part two which moves the action to 1934 Oberammergau, a spot where the Passion is performed every 10 years with pageantry and strict rules that border on mania. With the Nazis in power and with Hitler due to visit the Passion, the players must tread carefully, particularly the Passion’s Christ, Eric (Bess) who is carrying on a clandestine affair with a Nazi foot soldier (Leffler). Watching over the action, from age to age, is a girl known alternatively as Violet and the Village Idiot (Brittany Slattery), a young lady who – because she is an outsider – can never get a part in the Passion, much to her despair.
Ruhl reconfigures a third time for present day America, sending Pilate off to war, leaving Christ and Mary to conduct an affair, and having a traumatized Pilate return to try to rebuild to Spearfish to his reclaim his life and his part as Reagan intones his patriotic homilies (“it's morning in America; tear down this wall,” etc.) Again, we are to understand that the world is changing in wild and unpredictable ways, that even with touchstone like the long-running "Passion" to return to, it’s easy for ordinary mortals – even those playing extraordinary people - to lose their bearings. Bess and Leffler are both solid actors whose difficulties and anguish carry over across the ages. By the time we get to Reagan, however, Ruhl’s point is made and the investigation has largely plaid itself out.
Operating on a single set, with a curtain and a few rudimentary stage effects at their disposal, DeLorenzo’s actors are a trimly synched unit without a single weak link. From John Prosky playing three directors (Elizabethan, officious German) to Dylan Kenin’s intriguing triple duty as a German officer and a modern day director with new ideas to Slattery whose brain addled Village Idiot and idealistic child experience the same hurt, there is always something interesting on display. We’re only in February, but Tobias Baker, Dorie Barton, Daniel Bess, Bill Brochtrup, Shannon Holt, Dylan Kenin, Christian Leffler, Jason Liska, Beth Mack, John Charles Meyer, John Prosky, Brittany Slattery and Amanda Troop figure to make up one of the finest ensembles assembled.
For inexplicable reasons, Sarah Ruhl’s plays don’t get to L.A. as quickly as they might (Her “In The Next Room” only had its L.A. premiere in 2013). When they arrive, attention should be paid. Be warned: they come with thorns.
“Passion Play” continues 8 p.m., Fri.-Sat., 2 p.m. Sat. (also Wed. March 5 and Thursday March 13 at 8 p.m.); through March 16 at 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., L.A. $25-$30. (310) 477-2055, www.OdysseyTheatre.com.