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Sarah Ruhl's Passion Play

On June 5th we saw the 2nd to last night of the off-Broadway performance of Sarah Ruhl's Passion Play at the Irondale Center in Brooklyn performed by Epic Theater Ensemble. I understand that this was, as goldings695 's friend, Alex, put it: "It's the hottest ticket in New York right now!" It got great reviews and they extended the performance by a week and that, too, sold out.

The Irondale Center is a phenomenally run down community theater space in a beat old church. My eye saw it with no romance what so ever. This space screamed NY art scene in professional theater's limelight. The building interior was an array of peeling paint, crumbling plaster, and worn carpet. The church's triptyc, which sent critics into ecstasies over the appropriatness of the venue for the play, was indeed still hanging behind the set and only somewhat less worse for wear than the surrounding walls. According to reviews both the venue and the set purposefully evoked the feeling of community theater that Passion Plays are usually performed in. My admittedly minimal experience with community theater makes me disagree. Community theater at least tries to make things look decent, even if it looks amateurish; this was too shabby.

We arrived on a very warm and sticky Friday evening. The will-call area was up a set of crooked stairs to an area between a gymnasium and bathrooms. It was close, small, and smelled of rotten wood and over flowed toilet (in spite of there being no present disaster in the bathrooms). There was no lobby, so the crowd waited in the stairwells for the ushers to open the doors to seating in the gym. At 7:20 for a 7:30 show they still had not opened the doors. At 7:35 for a 7:30 they finally did. We trickled and shuffled up the stairs and thru double doors, entering at stage right to move across the floor to folding chairs on bleachers. At least in there the smell was gone, though the heat was the same. They announced at the start of the performance that the building's air conditioning unit had broken down; that explained the heat. 

The play was almost 4 hrs long. The first act was set in England during the reign of Elizabeth the 1st, the second act in 1934 Germany, and the third in 1969 South Dakota USA. Each actor/actress played the same (or nearly the same) role in each act/time period. It was described as, to quote the playwright: "I started thinking, how would it shape or misshape a life to play a biblical role year after year."

I left the play with the following feeling: too weird for me and too heavy handed with the pro-Jewish agenda. That latter feeling certainly came more from the author's 2 page note in the printed program rather than entirely from the play itself. Her note about the play was not about the play at all but about how anti-Jewish passion plays have been and how lacking of the Jewish perspective. Ummm... this is an odd and pejorative realization? There certainly isn't Christian or Muslim perspective in any of the Jewish rites and traditions.

It took me several days to digest my thoughts down to this: the performance was very well directed and exceedingly well acted. The script was a stink bomb.

The play was not a pychological portrait of the characters being shaped by performing the part of a Christian character in a passion play. The occasional elements of such were minor parts that hardly drove the storyline or character development at all. Too bad, I think that could have been quite interesting.

Nor was the play a thoughtful look at how the passion play has changed (or not) over time or how the era effects the play. The barest of details in dialog or set actually lent itself to the time periods, none with any accuracy or impact. The eras were further disrupted by drag-queen-Elizabeth appearing in 1934 and 1969.

Rather the play hit squarely and comfortably on major liberal talking points.
* lesbianism
* gay (and in particular the hazards of being gay in Nazi Germany) and sexual tension between gay and straight guys
* general sexuality/promiscuity particularly that of women
* repression of Jews/promoting a negative image of Jews
* how horrible the Catholic Church is/was
* how horrible Ronald Regan was
* government repression of religious freedom
* Hitler
* psychological problems of Vietnam war vets

Moreover, I really dislike when people write about stuff they don't know about...geeze...do your research or don't write it.

If you were born in the 1500s with a congential birth defect that left your belly open (belly button did not closed) you would not live to adulthood. Nor, would you live for years with gangrene in your belly wound. Gangrene kills, even in 2010.

In 1969 the Sturgis rally would have bee called the Black Hills Motor Classic or by its name from the 30s-50s, the JackPine Gypsies Motorcycle Club.

The dirt in the badlands is not red; its tan, ash, and clay colored. Red soil and rock are south in the Moab, Utah area.

South Dakota does not have a toll road.

During the reign of Queen Elizabeth the 1st, commoners did not have clocks. Especially not peasants in some backwater northern village that didn't have a monastery. Good grief, the spring driven clock was only invented in the 1400s and one of the oldest known was given to the Duke of Burgundy in 1430.

If you are a Vietnam vet with a paranoia about sleeping indoors because you won't be able to hear the enemy creeping thru the brush, I bet you were not a ship captain.

That said about the script itself, the performance really was terrifically well done, the set and scene change actions (because they did not have a curtain) were clever and well utilized. The pieces of the story that were about the characters struggling with their identity and motivations were quite powerful. It's just too bad that the whole was so piecemeal.