PASSION PLAY by Sarah Ruhl (Convergence/Outside The March/Sheep No Wool/Crow’s). Begins at Withrow Park (south of Danforth, east of Logan) and moves to Eastminster United Church (310 Danforth). To June 30. $25-$30. Tickets and schedule at outsidethemarch.ca. Rating: NNNN
In Passion Play, Sarah Ruhl explores the emotional forces that sustain us and bedevil us, as individuals, couples and communities.
The epic three-act play begins in Elizabethan England and moves first to 30s Germany and then to South Dakota during and after the Vietnam War. It's a journey in time and space in which visual and spoken echoes of past eras give added resonance to what we're currently watching.
The result is a four-hour evening, sometimes sprawling with its high goals and occasionally overwritten, but filled with strong performances and some magnificent theatrical moments as it turns more dark and gritty.
All three acts focus on the presentation of a Passion play, that cycle of dramatic performances enacting Christ's death and resurrection. At its centre, especially in the first and third acts, is the intertwined triangle of the people playing Christ (Andrew Kushnir), the Virgin Mary (Mayko Nguyen, called Mary 1 in the program) and Pontius Pilate (Cyrus Lane).
Not only do each era's characters have problems dealing with each other in their private world; they're also not always able to align their human feelings with the iconic Biblical roles they play. Is it possible for the real person to measure up to that larger-than-life figure?
The opening act, performed in Withrow Park, has the freshness of springtime under Alan Dilworth's direction. We meet a variety of people, including the often-ignored village idiot (Amy Keating); Mary's friend, also Mary and dubbed Mary 2 in the program, who plays Magdalene and has an interest in women (Julie Tepperman); a friar in hiding from the English authorities (Richard Binsley); various people working on the Passion production (Katherine Cullen, Sam Kalilieh and Thrasso Petras); and the show's director (Jordan Pettle).
They all reappear, often in slightly different guises, in the later acts.
The park act is full of poetry, both in the text as well as in Jung-Hye Kim's set and props, which include a red sky and some elegant floating fish. The lyricism is enhanced, here and elsewhere during the evening, in Samuel Sholdice's simple, focused sound design.
Lane establishes Pontius's unstable character from the start. A gutter of fish and cousin to John, the fisherman who plays Jesus, he lusts after Mary 1, but her sexual interest is only in the innocent John. Jealous of John, Pilate can barely control his anger; ironically, he's the most lyrical speaker in this episode, able to blend a fine concoction of poetry and madness.
The audience then walks to Eastminster United Church for the rest of the production. Its second act, directed with subtle tension by Aaron Willis, takes place in Oberammergau on the 300th anniversary of the local Passion play. The Nazi party in growing in power, Pilate is a German soldier and John initially a bystander in the politics swirling around him; the two share a bond not approved of by the authorities.
The village idiot here becomes Violet, the sole Jew in the town, so we know what lies ahead for her; the Passion scenes we see emphasize the culpability of the Jews for Christ's death. The flirtatious Mary 1 ironically remarks to a visiting Englishman that "here everything is as it appears to be."
In the final act, set in Spearfish, South Dakota, J and P are brothers. P, about to go off to Vietnam in 1969, is engaged to Mary 1 and J, also drawn to her, has aspirations to be a professional actor. Ruhl subtly weaves the Cain and Abel story into the plot.
Directed by Mitchell Cushman, this is the most intense part of Passion Play, and the entire cast rises to the challenge of the sometimes difficult, kaleidoscopic storyline. There's even a touch of comedy in the shift of the amateur Passion play to an increasingly professional production.
Anchoring it is Lane's complex P, whose madness, presented as PTSD, is never off-putting; he shares a series of visions and as well as a strong, strange bond with Violet, here his artistic daughter.
Appearing in a series of cameos, Maev Beaty offers a commentary on the play as three historic, domineering figures. Her Elizabeth I is an imperious queen; her Hitler begins as a rational friend of the German people who works himself up to a frenzy as he talks about the Jews. Most chilling, though, is her Ronald Reagan, an avuncular storyteller who almost imperceptibly wins people over with his folksy ways to America's need for a spiritual revival.
Despite some flaws, mostly in the writing, Passion Play is a deeply moving piece of theatre, an ambitious co-pro that demonstrates the strength of Toronto's indie community.