Howard Overshown in Passion Play, a cycle
(Photo © Scott Suchman)
Howard Overshown in Passion Play, a cycle
(Photo © Scott Suchman)
Sarah Ruhl's much-anticipated Passion Play, a cycle will be cherished by many Arena Stage patrons but may disappoint others. The former group will be engrossed by this rich tapestry of imagery, biting dialogue, and observations on the intersection of religion and politics despite the almost four-hour length of the presentation (including two intermissions), while the latter will view the work as self-indulgent and disjointed.

However, all can take pleasure in the skilled acting by most of the 12-member cast and in director Molly Smith's passionate stagecraft. Indeed, one has to admire the effort it takes to pull off a scene where Queen Elizabeth I is shown brandishing an assault rifle as dead fish perform a ballet around a soldier dying in Vietnam, all amidst the swirling fog of a nightmare. This is a sumptuous production, evocatively lit by Joel Moritz, with numerous set pieces designed by Scott Bradley effortlessly blooming out of and then melting back into the floor.

The darkly comic and frequently surreal trilogy spans 400 years of actors immersed in the cultural phenomenon of the Passion Play, which chronicles the last hours of Jesus Christ and which some communities have turned into a cottage industry. We see troupes in Elizabethan England, Hitler's Germany, and the Religious Right's America dealing with personal issues of morality juxtaposed against the pressures of religious/political holds on society. But since Ruhl's point is that the more things change, the more they remain the same, one wonders why this sprawling study could not have been condensed a bit and more sharply focused.

Part of the problem is that the first two parts of the cycle (England, 1575 and Germany, 1934) were written 10 years ago -- before Ruhl, author of The Clean House, became a darling of the theater world. In themselves, they form a neat package with a clear statement; but part three, which is set in South Dakota in the 1970s, '80s, and the present day, was written after George W. Bush ascended to the White House and religious fundamentalism became the order of the day in America. This section seems self-conscious, as if the playwright were laboring to find a fresh viewpoint to her thesis, and it is also stylistically divorced from parts one and two. There, Ruhl's storylines effectively encapsulate different societies dealing with the combustible mixture of religion and politics, from Elizabeth's crackdown on Catholics to the anti-Semitism that infects the German production. But Ruhl pulls her punches in the modern American scenes, and the larger questions that she poses are submerged by the weight of the personal problems of the characters and by an anti-war message.

While showing mastery with delicately crafted verbal imagery (a woman's beauty is described as "the air breathing inside the body of a violin"), Ruhl's symbolism can also be overbearing at times. For example, she juxtaposes a "village idiot" (Polly Noonan) reciting the story of Hansel and Gretel in 1934 and chanting that it's not nice to shove children into ovens with the anti-Semitic overtones of the villagers rehearsing the scene of Jesus driving stereotypically Jewish moneychangers from the temple.

The Arena production is particularly notable for excellent work by Felix Solis as the three characters who portray Pontius Pilate in the different time frames. Alternately playful, arch, and intensely serious, Solis has the ability to provoke thought, tug at the heartstrings, and tickle our funny bones simultaneously. His characters are men whose identities are tied up in the role, and they become the fulcrum for the play's seesawing emotional arcs.

Less intense but also enjoyable is Kelly Brady, who plays a village woman of seaside northern England in part one, a resident of Oberammergau in part two, and a cheerful South Dakotan in part three -- each of whom play Mary in their local version of the play-within-the-play. Howard W. Overshown is effective as John, the troubled actor who plays Jesus throughout the trilogy. The one flawed performance comes from Robert Dorfman, who does an amusing Queen Elizabeth and a passable Adolf Hitler but fails to bring Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon to life.

Ruhl has said she expects that some theater companies will prefer to stage the cycle's three segments on alternate dates; but this production proves that, despite its longeurs, the trilogy can hold the attention of audiences in one sitting.