Abuse of power in Sarah Ruhl play

Updated: May 14, 2010, 09:38 AM IST

New York: There is emotion and symbolism aplenty in ‘Sarah Ruhl`s Passion Play,’ a seriously comedic, sprawling triptych that examines aspects of lust, envy, religion, abuse of power and the acting profession during three important historical eras.

It`s definitely worth seeing the Epic Theatre Ensemble`s New York premiere of Ruhl`s ambitious play, currently performing at the Irondale Center in Brooklyn.

Ruhl focuses on the actors who performed their town`s annual Passion plays, important religious productions of scenes from the life of Jesus. An intrepid cast navigates separate, tumultuous times: Elizabethan England, when Catholic priests were hunted down and killed; Hitler`s rising repressive influence in pre-World War II Germany; and Ronald Reagan`s 1980s in Spearfish, S.D.

Mark Wing-Davey`s direction skilfully encompasses both serious and light-hearted moments that infuse Ruhl`s narratives about families and human relationships, integrated with larger political overtones and biblical references.

An intrepid cast navigates the three centuries with outstanding performances, ably switching between realism and surrealistic dreamscapes.

Dominic Fumusa, in the Pontius Pilate roles, is especially intense and compelling, first as a jealous, lovelorn fisherman in the 16th century, and later as a troubled Vietnam War veteran in South Dakota.

Hale Appleman radiates charm as the actor fortunate enough to play Christ, giving affecting portrayals of each actor as a man of his time. Kate Turnbull is ethereally lovely as the actress playing Mary, coping in all centuries with complicated relationships.

The ensemble cast artfully handles all roles, along with some large props that create often facetious Passion play tableaus. Nicole Wiesner and Keith Reddin give affecting nuances to each of their characters, Reddin as a harried director and Wiesner as a sanguine Mary Magdalene. Daniel Pearce provides historical relevance as an endangered medieval priest and as a naive Englishman visiting 1934 Bavaria.

Polly Noonan has an uncanny ability to simultaneously project childlike thinking and wisdom, both as a whimsical village idiot and as a young child. And T. Ryder Smith is unforgettable as figures of repression: an alarming Hitler, a barmy Reagan and, scariest of all, as a falsely pleasant Queen Elizabeth I.

Detailed costumes enrich each period, while a deceptively simple set design enables a myriad of quick scene changes. Memorable imagery includes a magical bevy of large, translucent fish, beautifully employed in elegiac parades.

Total running time is close to three and a half hours, but ‘Sarah Ruhl`s Passion Play’ is a rich experience that all lovers of theatre should rush to see before the limited run ends May 30.

Bureau Report

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