“Mmm, pungent,” muttered my companion as we stepped into the vast space of the Irondale Center. Indeed, as I inhaled the acrid smell of decaying fish smote my nostrils, and the particularly confusing phrase in the Epic Theatre Ensemble’s blurb about their Passion Play—“lots of fish”—was now clarified.
Word surrounding Sarah Ruhl’s latest creation has been building for months, and I have been anticipating the opening since attending a preview-reading in March. The venue, befittingly in the Lafayette Ave Presbyterian Church in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, was minimally dressed with rustic, nondescript set pieces. Three flags hung from the balconies, representing the three-era, three-country setting of the play. As we settled into our seats, my nose (and stomach) began to acclimate to the aroma, though it unfortunately got the better of one sensitive audience member.
The three-and-a-half hour production was a thought-provoking delight, delivering a comedy-infused reflection on the relationship between performance, politics, and religion. Not only did it showcase Ruhl’s wit and creativity, but also her cultural and historical awareness. Each act took place in a distinct era and chronicled the production process of a Passion Play, starting in Elizabethan England for Act I, traveling to Nazi Germany for Act II, and finishing in the Vietnam War / Reagan-era United States in Act III. Though each act stood on its own as a riveting mini-play, the combination of the three produced a masterfully woven web of themes and character relationships. In each act, the actors would maintain their essential roles in the Passion, but their characters’ personalities would change. The various incarnations of these characters created a fascinating tension within the play, and played with the boundary between performance and reality. For example, Hale Appleman, the actor playing Jesus in each era, transformed from a virtuous, shy man who basically emulated Christ in Act I, to a Nazi soldier in Act II, to a sleazy, pot-smoking scoundrel in Act III. The overlapping qualities of virtue and sin were evident in almost all the characters and the roles that they played, painting an existential picture of human complexity.
One of the most entertaining character parallels were the “political figures,” rendered through T. Ryder Smith’s humorous caricatures of Queen Elizabeth, Hitler, and Reagan. Each of these figures used (or banned) the Passion production to benefit their respective political agendas in the play, a testament to the power that theatre possesses.
Director Mark Wing-Davey, currently the chair of NYU’s Graduate Acting Program, enhanced the play’s dimension with dynamic staging, and effectively balanced the heavier, more serious moments with comedic mock-melodrama in the various Passions. The actors all performed with commitment and vitality, delivering a range of compelling and amusing performances. Most notable were Kate Turnbull as the morally conflicted Virgin Mary and Dominic Fumusa as the internally tormented Pontias Pilate, who imbued their characters with passion and depth. David Weiner’s lighting was both playful and powerful, and brought a sense of focus to the expansive horizontal space. Allen Moyer’s deceptively simple set allowed for versatile and innovative staging, with rolling shed-like structures serving as anything from a simple house entrance to a dream-like conveyer of the symbolic Village Idiot.
The Epic Theatre Ensemble lives up to its name with this production of Passion Play, and the show exemplifies Sarah Ruhl’s magnificent talent. Though quite long, the pacing of the dialogue and scene shifts makes it seem timeless. It is a complete sensory experience, from the smell of fish to the sight and sounds of the production to the communion-like bread and wine at the intermissions. The show is even touching (emotionally at least). It is definitely worth investing an evening in.
Passion Play runs until May 30th and is playing at the Irondale Center in Fort Greene, Brooklyn (45 South Oxford Street). Call (866) 811-4111 for tickets or visit www.epictheatreensemble.org