Monday, May 31, 2010

Passion Play

"Passion Play," a play by Sarah Ruhl who has received much acclaim lately, is being presented in Brooklyn's Fort Greene at an historic Presbyterian church that was the site of a great deal of abolitionist activity before the Civil War. The theatre space that has been carved out of the church is commodious and impressive, which works well for a play focusing on multiple retellings of Christ's crucifixion and resurrection.

I really didn't expect to like this play all that much, as I have been disappointed on a number of occasions by Ruhl's plays. I loved "Clean House" but found Eurydice and even the positively reviewed "Vibrator Play" remote and scattered. Passion Play is divided into three fairly long acts. The first takes place in 1575 England, the year that Queen Elizabeth prohibits the production of passion plays. The second part happens in Nazi Germany, and the oppressive tendencies of the passion play (anti-semitism, for instance) are thoughtfully developed.

Yet, during the intermission between the second and third acts, I turned to Karen and said I didn't really get Sarah Ruhl, that I again was feeling disappointed that so little of consequence seemed to be happening in the play we were watching.

The third act takes place in South Dakota, first in 1969 and then in 1984, where updated passion plays have been put on for many years. Somehow, for me anyway, Ruhl completely redeems herself in this act, linking the passion plays to dangerous patriotism and prejudice and to false promises about America's greatness. In this act, she works President Reagan into the plot, whose personality I think she perfectly nails and in the process inserts a sad, biting humor into this final act. There is much here as well about our utterly tragic and pathetic involvement in Vietnam that I also found quite moving and that is connected intriguingly to our ongoing attachment to organized religion

Not for all tastes and uneven throughout, Passion Play matters. I want to read it and see it again. For me, that is a sign that it is a work of enduring value. I hope it will continue to be presented regularly in New York and elsewhere.

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