Passion Play: Theater Review

Atypically epic for an ever-exploring playwright, this venturesome set of variations on the enduring tradition of dramatizing The Passion of The Christ illuminates those roots from which Mel Gibson (and his audience) sprouted. 

An epic dramatization of religious pageantry arrives in West L.A.

With its three acts set in 1575 Lancashire, 1934 Oberammergau in Nazi Germany, and from 1969-1984 in Spearpoint, South Dakota, the epically ambitious Passion Play presents the millennium-long tradition of local amateur stagings of the trial and crucifixion of Jesus as a kaleidoscopic metaphor for the aspirations of the individual and the community of faith in tension with the power of the State. Its amplitude marks an interestingly dogged departure from the more familiar allusive lyricism and incisive comedy of Sarah Ruhl’s other work (The Clean House, Dead Man’s Cell Phone, Eurydice).

Indeed, Ruhl began writing the play nearly 20 years ago as a graduate student, the text only assuming its present, still proudly unwieldy form in 2005, and this long-awaited Los Angeles premiere under the steady hand of director Bart DeLorenzo offers a welcome introduction to this cauldron boiling over with intriguing ideas and sure theatrical instincts. DeLorenzo boasts a specific skill for mounting lucid productions of very big plays in very small spaces – witness his superb Pentecost, The Berlin Circle and Hard Times at the former Evidence Room home – with the knack of nimbly shepherding complex themes into comprehensible action.

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Queen Elizabeth I consolidated her power in meaningful measure by suppressing stubborn vestiges of Catholic ritual in England, extending to the ultimate banning of provincial Passion Plays. Here the piety of the closet papists is expressed by the earnest identification of the players with their roles. By contrast, the 300th anniversary of the baldly anti-Semitic Oberammergau becomes a propaganda tool for the visiting Adolf Hitler. The more panoramic American section spans from the Vietnam War to the reelection campaign of Ronald Reagan, mirroring changes in society through that period as both religiosity and doubt contend more assertively. In each self-contained but intricately interrelated piece, the same actors play parallel parts that form a repertory company in which the meanings and associations progressively accrue suggestive force.

Ruhl bites off a great deal and manages to chew on a substantial part of it. There is a zeal and respect for common folk not so often encountered onstage since the Depression and World War II, a curiosity about the relationship between faith and obedience, fascination about the theater as a metaphor for the role-playing of our public and private selves, and the chutzpah to tackle multiple historical perspectives through lenses both telescopic and microscopic. Some of it can be facile or excessively generalized, yet thankfully she often exhibits her unique poetry of expression, a little mysterious and with a diction and imagery identifiable as hers alone, evident as early as her supply evocative Melancholy Play (1995). She doesn’t lapse into the devalued currency of easily explicable psychologizing, instead preferring to seek out mythic qualities to illuminate rather than explain essential behaviors.

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This superior troupe proffers great diversity of attack in their assorted castings. The Jesus figure throughout (Daniel Bess) incarnates variously clueless simple virtue, conflicted closeted innocent and Method actor self-absorption. The three Mother Marys (Dorie Barton) range from the guilelessly sexual to icy manipulator to stalwart single mother. Unsurprisingly, the most complex opportunities are afforded the Pontius Pilate (Christian Leffler): as a resentful snake-in-Eden, a virile warrior brownshirt and a damaged war veteran, Leffler demonstrates a panoply of leading-man talents.

Nevertheless, the show-stealing tour-de-force is unquestionably the trifecta of tyrants spellbindingly impersonated by Shannon Holt as Elizabeth, Hitler and Reagan. Here the writing tends to lapse into over-pushed comparisons that are more facile than illuminating, yet in Holt’s hands this inspired stunt becomes both raucous and scalding. She makes so much more than the most of this mind-boggling opportunity with her flamboyant comic sureness and the chilling stillness within these calculated political performers.

Venue: The Odyssey Theatre (runs through March 16)

Cast: Christian Leffler, Dorie Barton, Daniel Bess, Amanda Troop, Brittany Slattery, Shannon Holt, John Prosky, Dylan Kenin, Bill Brochtrup, Tobias Baker, John Charles Meyer, Jason Liska, Beth Mack

Director: Bart DeLorenzo

Playwright: Sarah Ruhl

Set designer: Frederica Nascimento

Lighting designer: Michael Gend

Music & sound designer: John Ballinger

Costume designer: Raquel Barreto

Producers: Beth Hogan and Bart DeLorenzo

Presented by the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble and Evidence Room