Tableaux Vivant: Ruhl's Ambitious Passion Play, a cycle Gets World Premiere at Arena Stage

News   Tableaux Vivant: Ruhl's Ambitious Passion Play, a cycle Gets World Premiere at Arena Stage 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.
Passion Play playwright Sarah Ruhl looks on during rehearsal of her epic at Arena Stage.
Passion Play playwright Sarah Ruhl looks on during rehearsal of her epic at Arena Stage. Photo by Adena DeMonte

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."

After sending out an email letter to her subscribers and supporters explaining the genesis of the show, Smith "received a number of responses" from them, "many with questions or concerns about the upcoming production."

In a followup email Aug. 22, Smith wrote, "I wanted to take a few moments to clarify a few points, and to encourage further thinking and discussion about this important play. Some of you wondered whether Sarah's play is like the recent Mel Gibson movie, 'The Passion of the Christ.' Gibson's controversial movie was purely a retelling of the traditional Passion story, and while our play certainly incorporates aspects of that story, it is much more about the people who perform in various productions of it throughout history – and in particular, how their involvement in the Passion comes to affect their personal lives. Sarah is much more interested in exploring the intersection of politics, religion and ordinary people – using the Passion as a backdrop – than the traditional story itself."

Smith continued, "Many have raised concerns that our production will be anti-Semitic, as the traditional Passion has a complicated and sometimes discriminatory history. But nothing could be further from the truth. Sarah's play argues for tolerance, not against it. This is especially evident in the play's moving second act, which takes place in Nazi Germany and demonstrates in no uncertain terms the disastrous effects on the Jewish people of Hitler's rise to power."

She added, "Sarah’s play does raise difficult questions, and I am thrilled that so many of you have already reacted to news of its premiere. I encourage you to visit our website, www.arenastage.org, where you can read a detailed synopsis of Passion Play, a cycle that will give you a better sense of the play's story (without giving the ending away, of course!). We will be hosting post-show discussions throughout the run of the show to facilitate the challenging but necessary conversations the show is sure to engender. My hope is that with more information and a willingness to engage in the provocative nature of Passion Play, a cycle, audiences will see just how broad the scope of Sarah's imaginative work is, and understand why all of us at Arena Stage are so excited about it. I hope you will decide to join us in the Kreeger to see for yourself what all the buzz is about."

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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.