PASSION PLAY is Sarah Ruhl’s wild and wooly triptych about innocence and corruption (from the Elizabethan age to the 1980s). Like Caryl Churchill before her, Ruhl cuts a swath out of history, anchoring her tome to the individual stories of history’s unsuspecting participants.
The play is unruly but the performances are game changers. The new kids on the block call themselves The Circuit Theatre Company. (They tour several venues in August, the last on the circuit being Oberon on August 12th) These young performers set the bar awfully high for the rest of Boston’s eighty or so companies. They all play instruments, sing like pros and act the heck out of Ruhl’s uneven, but nevertheless chilling, allegory. Have patience with the first section. It’s an overlong set-up for the next two which will repeat dialogue, characters and the “Passion Play” setting from the first. Mercifully the next two fly by. (If only they could fast forward the first!)
The medieval miracle play has made its way to Elizabethan England (in Part I) where, like it is in Germany still, the parts for the Passion Play are cast by dint of citizenship. The very best villager, for example, plays Christ… leading, as you might imagine, to jealousy and rancor. Same deal for parts two and three, only the year and the politics are changed.
Ruhl weaves fairy tales, the Holocaust and Viet Nam into her tapestry of human tragedy, ending the piece with a lovely vision of hope (which conjures Emily Dickenson’s definition: “the thing with feathers that perches in your soul”). The Circuit troupe make it soar. They can make your blood run cold, too, when they create the sounds of a train in Nazi Germany. All throughout the play, music and sound ratchet up the stakes. (The only problem for Circuit is that the music sometimes makes it hard to hear the actors over the cello, for instance.)
All the performances are simply extraordinary in director Skylar Fox’s production, with the remarkable Justin Phillips heading up the cast as a pitiable fisherman, a gay German soldier and a tortured Viet Nam Vet, all of whom play Pontius Pilate in each era’s “Passion Play” and each of whom drives the action. Madeline Schulman as Mary is outstanding, as are Sam Bell-Gurwitz as Christ and Natalie McDonald as the next Mary. Christopher Annas-Lee, Caleb Bromberg and Louis Loftis supply ample comedy and Emma Johnson is the piece de resistance as QEI, Hitler and Ronald Reagan.