By Erin Crandell
Playwright Sarah Ruhl has done an absolutely remarkable thing with Passion Play (currently running at Forum Theatre in Silver Spring). It’s not easy to write a play where three of the characters are Elizabeth I, Hitler, and Ronald Reagan, and make any kind of sense, let alone create a piece of art that makes you question the intersection between faith, love, and what human beings will do to reconcile the two.
The play, set in a small town, follows a group of villagers who put on an annual production of the Passion of the Christ. Each act shifts dramatically in time period and political context, forcing the characters and the play to adapt with it. The first act is located in Elizabethan England, where the Church of England is persecuting Catholics. The townspeople put on the show as a way to rebel against the state, and as the rehearsal process progresses, life begins to imitate art. The play becomes darker in the second act, as we watch the townspeople embrace the Nazi government’s promise of a united Germany in 1934. The show ends in post-Vietnam America, where the townspeople have lost their faith in religion and government, leading to the collapse of the small town’s theatrical world. Ruhl, director Michael Dove, and the actors take what could be a confusing script, and keep it manageable for the audience.
The play within a play format leaves most of the heavy lifting to the actors. Each actor embodies at least three characters that are completely different, and yet their performances are essential in illuminating the parallels and contradictions between life and art. There is a Virgin Mary who is not so virginal, a Christ who does not always conform to Christianity, and a Pontius Pilot who just wants to be loved. Jon Hudson Odom delivers a riveting performance as the aforementioned Pontius Pilate. His emotion and physicality anchor all three acts, and make Pontius Pilate into a character that is pitied, feared, and loved. Tonya Beckman also does a commendable job portraying Elizabeth II, Hitler, and Reagan. It’s not easy for one person to portray three famous figures of different genders, sometimes all in the same act. Her Elizabeth I was vain, her Hitler playfully flamboyant, and her Reagan sadly nostalgic; preferring to recount baseball plays than face the realities of war.
The actors are having a great time, and they want you to have a great time too. There are short bursts of boisterous audience participation that keeps you (and probably the actors) energized, and as a result the audience becomes part of the town. We see the actors as the townspeople, the townspeople becoming their characters in the Passion, and we feel a connection to them that breaks the boundaries of traditional theater. Prepare to leave with your heart broken and with your mind racing along that line between humanity and G-O-D.
Be warned, the show clocks out at almost four hours, but it does include two very helpful intermissions where you can caffeinate yourself, or get a glass of wine (depending on how you like to discuss religion and morality).