D.C. Arena Premiere of Ruhl's Passion Play Features Virgin Queen, Hitler, Reagan, 12 Actors, 100 Costumes, 400 Years

News   D.C. Arena Premiere of Ruhl's Passion Play Features Virgin Queen, Hitler, Reagan, 12 Actors, 100 Costumes, 400 Years Sarah Ruhl's era-leaping three-act Passion Play, a cycle, exploring politics, art and religion in the context of stagings of the Passion of Christ around the world, makes its world premiere Sept. 3 at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.
Promotional art for Passion Play
Promotional art for Passion Play

Arena artistic director Molly Smith will stage the ambitious 12-actor, 100-costume, tableau-rich epic, which references (among other things) theatre people, religion, Queen Elizabeth I, Hitler, Ronald Reagan, Vietnam and Oberammergau — the Bavarian town known for its centuries-old public reenactments of the last days of Christ.

Ruhl had written two related Passion Play one-acts and Arena commissioned a third. The three were glued together at Smith's suggestion to form the upcoming hybrid work, to play at Arena's Kreeger space.

Ruhl is the 2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist who penned The Clean House, which is fast becoming a much-produced regional sensation.

"Ruhl's story reveals societal, racial and artistic intolerance, raising questions about the act of storytelling while investigating the potential for manipulation of any work of art or religion for political gain," according to Arena production notes for Passion Play, a cycle.

Many of the actors in the ensemble cast will portray multiple roles – one or more per each act of the play, according to Arena. The cast includes Felix Solis, Howard Overshown, Kelly Brady, Carla Harting, Polly Noonan, Robert Dorfman (playing Queen Elizabeth I/Adolf Hitler/Ronald Reagan/Ensemble), Karl Miller, Leo Erickson, Lawrence Redmond, J. Fred Shiffman, Edward James Hyland and Parker Dixon. Passion Play, a cycle is billed as "a lavishly inventive, darkly comic play-within-a-play told through the prism of actors enacting The Passion of Christ at three different points in history. In a single performance, Ruhl's trilogy spans 400 years and features 12 actors playing 30 roles in more than 100 costumes, on three distinct sets."

Due to the complicated technical demands of the two-intermission work (expected to be at least 3-1/2 hours long, perhaps four), the first preview Sept. 2 was canceled. Performances begin 7 PM Sept. 3, and continue to Oct. 16.

Because all three plays are combined into a single event, evening shows will begin at 7 PM, weekend matinees at 1 PM and weekday matinees at 11 AM.

In production notes, director Molly Smith compares the scale and immediacy of Ruhl's epic to Tony Kushner's Angels in America and Robert Schenkkan's The Kentucky Cycle.

"Sarah's expansive theatrical imagination is showcased in this exuberant and terrifying modern morality play about politics, religion and the common man," said Smith. "Arena's dedication to the American canon includes an investment in emerging writers. We are proud to have developed this evocative world premiere by such a talented playwright."

Several years ago, Arena Stage commissioned Ruhl to write a play about America as part of its downstairs in the Old Vat Room new-play reading series. "Fascinated by the rich relationship of theatre to politics, Ruhl penned a sequel to an existing two-play body of work," according to Arena. "When Smith suggested linking all three of the plays to create one epic event, Passion Play, a cycle was born."

"Little is more American than the nexus of religious rhetoric, politics, love and theatricality," said Ruhl, in notes. "At an historical moment when it feels at times as if we are in the midst of a contemporary holy war — where the line between religion and politics has become increasingly blurred — I'm thrilled to premiere this play at Arena Stage, in our nation's political center."

Passion Play, a cycle begins in 1575 Elizabethan England, when Queen Elizabeth is about to shut down The Passion of Christ. The actor who plays the role of Pontius Pilate wants the role of Christ, which is played by his cousin.

The second act moves forward in time and space to 1934 Oberammergau, where Hitler visits a performance of The Passion of Christ and is greeted with open arms by a town slowly drawing into the Nazi party.

Act Three takes place in the post-Vietnam War era and contemporary America in Spearfish, South Dakota, where a Vietnam veteran plays the role of Pontius Pilate, and Ronald Reagan visits the small town as part of his presidential campaign.

Passion Play had "modest beginnings" nearly 10 years ago as Ruhl's senior thesis project at Brown University. "Inspired, in part, by a favorite childhood book called 'Betsy and the Great World' by Maud Hart Lovelace – in which villagers of Oberammergau, Bavaria were so holy as to become the living embodiment of their Biblical roles on stage – Ruhl began to research the history of The Passion of Christ performances around the world."

Encouraged by her mentor and professor, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel, Ruhl scripted Passion Play Parts 1 and 2 – the two plays which would ultimately become Act One and Act Two of Passion Play, a cycle.

"Sarah Ruhl is fast becoming a major voice in the 21st century American theatre," said Vogel, in a statement. "Having witnessed the transformative effect of her unique and singular plays for over a decade, I have remained fiercely optimistic about the future of American theatre in the century ahead. I eagerly anticipate the transformation of the Arena audience in my own hometown of Washington, D.C."

Ruhl was a 2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist and won a 2004 Susan Smith Blackburn award for her play The Clean House, recently performed in Washington, D.C. at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. It's slated for seven productions at theatres across the country this season, including Lincoln Center. Ruhl's body of work includes Melancholy Play, Eurydice, Late: a cowboy song and Orlando. In 2003, she was the recipient of a Helen Merrill Award and a Whiting Writers' award. She is a member of 13P and New Dramatists. An anthology of Ruhl's work is forthcoming from Theatre Communications Group.

The design, dictated by the scripts, is a "mergence of realism and the fantastic…a world layered in suggestions of the past with moments of vivid authenticity." Throughout the three acts, audiences will experience a number of tableaus, or freeze-frame stage pictures, "making direct reference to prominent biblical art."

The creative team includes set designer Scott Bradley, costume designer Linda Cho, lighting designer Joel Moritz, sound designer Andre Pluess, production dramaturg Mark Bly and stage manager Amber Dickerson.

For more information, visit www.arenastage.org.

Playwright Sarah Ruhl (center) watches rehearsal alongside director Molly Smith, dramaturg Mark Bly and actor Polly Noonan
Playwright Sarah Ruhl (center) watches rehearsal alongside director Molly Smith, dramaturg Mark Bly and actor Polly Noonan Photo by Adena DeMonte)