Wednesday, October 12, 2005

"Passion Play" at the Arena Stage

So I'm theatre buddies with this amazing 90-year old man I met at my office - he's a real inspiration: still plays tennis, writing his memoirs, just went on a tour of Croatia, smart as a whip, and glowing with happiness. I wrote about him before, here.

We went to see "Passion Play" at the Arena Stage last night. It's a long play, with three acts that cover the staging of the medieval "passion play" of the crucifixion of Christ during different time periods, with recurring archetypal characters. Sarah Ruhl is the playwright - she won a Pulitzer a few years ago for her play "The Clean House" - and she wrote in the play notes that she was particularly interested in how peoples' lives were affected by playing these characters year after year. (How would you feel if you channeled Jesus Christ in front of a crowd of thousands, twenty years in a row?)

The first act is set in England during the Protestant Reformation (so the Catholic play gets shut down mid-act by Queen Elizabeth) and features a Virgin Mary actress who has a sleazy affair with the village fishmonger (who plays Pontius Pilate), gets pregnant, and claims that she had a dream where God told her he was going to give her a baby so she could play the part of the Virgin Mary more convincingly. There's naturally a bit of controversy about her fellow villagers.

The second act is in a small town in Germany, Oberammergau, in 1934 - many of the actors in the play are members of the Nazi party, and they focus their Passion Play on incriminating Jews for the murder of Jesus. It includes a real historical speech by Hitler, which he gave when he visited a passion play (six weeks after the Night of the Long Knives.)

After the second act, my theater buddy, Lincoln, told me, amazingly enough, that he'd actually seen the Passion Play in Oberammergau that same year! He'd been in London on a Rhodes Scholarship, and had planned a Rhineland tour. "It wasn't quite the same atmosphere as the play portrayed," he said. "It was in July, so it was much sunnier and brighter. And the Nazi party hadn't really solidified their political control yet. I met a lot of intellectuals who complained bitterly about 'that Austrian house-painter.' "

And the third act is set in South Dakota and features a Pontius Pilate actor who returns as a Vietnam vet, and some rather funny cameos by Ronald Reagan.

Here's one review that gives a
pretty good flavor:

Some critics thought it was too sprawling and messy, and indeed the play is stuffed to bursting with symbols and themes and connections, poetic outbursts, complicated jokes, historical references, cameos, and other metaphysical paraphernalia. But I think a lot of the complaints I've read in critical reviews seemed to stem from the critics not being willing to pay attention and give themselves over to the play. It all does really make sense, and even the surrealist parts are beautifully connected to other themes, and the whole shambling, coruscating, gargantuan, slobbering whole of the play is so much greater than the sum of the parts.

Really, it was brilliant. It's still on for four more days - until the 16th - and if you're at all interested in theater, and if you like a challenge, I highly recommend it.

I'm going back to see it again tonight, to give you some idea of my enthusiasm...


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