EVIDENCE ROOM & ODYSSEY THEATRE
John/Eric/J - Daniel Bess
Director - Bart DeLorenzo
Stage Managers - Carol Solis and Benjamin Watt
Graphic Design - Dane Martens
January 25 - March 16, 2014
Stage and Cinema
If you ever climb to the top of the Granite Park Chalet trail in Montana, you will find at the end of the hugely winding, desperately steep pathway a log book containing entries by fellow hikers. One of the entries reads something like, 'I have come up h're every year for the last 40 years. The view has remained the same – but I have changed into something I don't recognize!'
This is a thought that came to my mind while watching Sarah Ruhl's compelling and sprawling drama about a play which is staged over several hundred years. The play that the various performers enact tells generally the same story – but the contextual environments and trappings could not change more.
The play, as you might guess from the title, is the great Passion Play, which tells the story of Christ's birth and crucifixion. Ruhl's dynamic piece charts the backstage antics as productions are mounted in four different eras that couldn't be more different, even though people, their motivations and, yes, their passions, remain the same.
Passion Play opens in 1573 England, as a cast of peasant villagers rehearse for a highly subversive and illegal production of the story of Christ's birth and crucifixion. It's illegal, of course, because representations of the religious story come close to being Catholic, which is a burnable offense at the time. Even so, the villagers press on with their performance plans. In this era, with the line between fictional and mystical experience being thin to the point of feathery, the actors cast as the famous Biblical figures start to find themselves 'infected' by their roles: The actor playing Jesus (Daniel Bess) is a young fisherman who starts to take on the innocence and idealism of his Messianic character. Meanwhile, his brother (Christian Leffler), who's playing Pontius Pilate, seethes with bitterness as the villagers clearly start to think of him as being as wicked as the historical tool he's playing. And the actress playing the Virgin Mary (Dorie Barton) finds herself fearing for her reputation when she discovers that she's with child.
Now the story jumps forward to Oberammergau, Germany, circa 1935, where a village has become famous for its decennial performance of the Passion, which is now being presented in a style that turns it into a propaganda tool for the burgeoning Nazi movement. If Act I channels opuses such as Orlando, the second act is a bit of a throwback to Cabaret. The same actors appear as the same Biblical characters as they did in the Elizabethan Era, but their behind-the-scenes roles are almost incredibly different. Now the actor playing Pilate (still Leffler) quits the play to become a storm trooper, causing heartbreak for his boyfriend, the actor playing Jesus (Bess again), who contemplates leaving the production to find a more meaningful life – as a Gestapo goon.
The production's final third thematically seems to cross Sam Shepard's True West with the Vietnam War movie Coming Home. This time, the action takes place in 1969 South Dakota, as the actor playing Pilate is drafted, while his brother, the actor playing Jesus, opts to head to New York to become an actor. Within a couple of decades, the Jesus is a big time TV star, and Pilate, home from Vietnam, is an emotionally shattered wreck.
Director Bart Delorenzo stages the kaleidoscopic goings on with his usual insightful and visually dynamic flair. His Evidence Room production at the Odyssey Theatre is full of glittery touches: Fantasy sequences in which glowing fish kites are carried around the stage like they're adrift on a timeless sea; or a scene taking place in the eerie emptiness of a South Dakota highway toll booth, created with wind effects and a single light.
Interestingly, DeLorenzo appears to have gone with the notion that the work consists of three separate, if thematically linked plays. The Elizabethan act is staged with the mood of a Medieval Pageant, while the sequences taking place in Germany possess the deftly evoked suspense of something vile lurking just offstage. By contrast, the 20th century sequences boast a gentler, almost elegiac mood that's fraught with melancholy.
But one finds oneself particularly intrigued by DeLorenzo's attention to psychology and personality. At times, we suspect that the characters in the three eras might be the same people separated by time, but the deduction is a bit ambiguous; it's not really spelled out. One thing is for sure: We find ourselves noticing the connections and similarities between ages. For instance, the same actor (an excellent John Prosky) plays the Passion Play director in all epochs, but does so entirely influenced by the years in which he appears: He's a capricious authoritarian figure in the Elizabethan Era, a rather curtly sinister orders-giver in the Nazi period, and a touchy-feely theater games-player in the 1960s (though still a tyrant each time). And in all eras, the characters are influenced in various ways by the Biblical figures they're playing – directly during Elizabethan times, and then in more subtle ways in the ensuing eras.
Ensemble work is powerful and strikingly versatile. Perhaps offering the most subtly varied turn is Leffler, who is a bit of a brute in the Elizabethan times, idealistically wrongheaded in the Nazi act, and beautifully, touchingly damaged in the Vietnam era. As the actress playing the Virgin Mary, Barton offers a performance full of complexity and contrasts: She's sweetly, innocently sexy in the Elizabeth era, a disturbingly ruthless femme fatale in Germany, and an increasingly brittle housewife in the 20th century sequences.
All the other performers offer turns that are equally colorful and varied. But no review of this play would be complete without mention of the stunning cameos offered by Shannon Holt, who appears in each act in a different iconic role, awesomely fierce as a bellicose, merciless Queen Elizabeth, eyes flickering with amused insanity as a Adolph Hitler, and then droolingly childlike as a dim bulb Ronald Reagan. Even in the comparatively brief roles she plays here, Holt's standout performances are vivid and funny; you'll want to return to the play just to see her tear up the stage.
– Paul Birchall
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.
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.
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.
– Myron Meisel