The woman playing the Virgin Mary falls in love with the man playing Christ

The woman playing the Virgin Mary falls in love with the man playing Christ

The cycle, together, explores the relationships between faith and politics, authenticity and theatricality, and community and political icons

“If Virginia Woolf became a playwright, she’d be someone like Sarah Ruhl,” Ms. Vogel said in an interview, praising the “epic intelligence” of her former student.

Passion Play, a Cycle has grown into a three-part event looking at the production of various Passion plays during the virulently anti-Catholic reign of Elizabeth I, while the Nazis amassed power in pre-World War II Germany, and in South Dakota during and after the Vietnam War. It has been produced at several theaters, including the Actor’s Center in London and the Arena Stage in Washington, where it received mixed reviews in 2005. In 2007 The Goodman Theater in Chicago and in 2008 the Yale Repertory Theater mounted productions. Ms. Ruhl has said that even after a decade of writing, “I’m still working on it.”

The New York debut was an interesting production in 2010 by the Epic Theater Ensemble at the Irondale Center of the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn. The center’s 19th-century ecclesiastical interior proved to be perfect for the themes of the epic play. The title was changed to Sarah Ruhl’s Passion Play, and the work became the center of a festival of related events intended to bring together believers and nonbelievers to investigate the intersections of faith, ritual, belonging and performance.

“I’ve been obsessed with the Passion play since I was a child,” Ms. Ruhl has stated. “Maybe it was being raised a Catholic, but I was definitely also interested in how whole towns would get involved, or religiosity could be used as a cloak for other things. In that sense my play is much more about theater than it is about religion.”

The festival began before the play opened with a convocation centering on different forms of devotion and songs from the church’s Lafayette Inspirational Ensemble gospel choir. On Sundays during the run, audience members were invited to gather for locally supplied dinner fare and discussions around the table that takes on a mysterious role. Bread and wine were served at all intermissions.

More than 40 groups, which organizers called the Passion Coalition, participated in the festival, aligning with Epic Theater’s mission to stage politically conscious work and to create programming directed at New York City’s public schools and their underserved communities. Zac Berkman, one of Epic’s executive directors feels that he “missed the sense of community religion gives you growing up. Theater should feel like a secular church.” Backstage called this production “the most exciting, stimulating, and thrilling piece of theater to hit New York since Angels in America.”

During the epic trilogy, we first see a small town in England performing the Passion in 1575. The man who plays Pontius Pilate wants to play the role of Christ, played by his cousin. The players are haunted by the confusion between their roles on-stage and off. Queen Elizabeth I eventually cancels the production as Catholics are persecuted for their “non-official” faith.

The second act leaps to Germany in 1934, where the young man playing Christ is slowly drawn towards the Nazi party. Historically, the first actors in Oberammergau to join the Nazi party were the director of the Passion and the actor who played Christ. Hitler makes an appearance and comments on the goings-on.

In this era, homosexuality plays a larger role, and the Passion’s ingrained anti-Semitism clearly plays a more prominent part

The third act begins in 1969, as a small town in South Dakota puts on their annual Passion Play. The man playing Pontius Pilate goes to serve in Vietnam, returning only to find that his part has been given away to an equity actor. The war has changed his perspective, and he insists on rewriting the dialogue to emphasize his character’s role as an agent of the state. The man playing the role of Christ ends up betraying his brother. Ronald Reagan visits the town, campaigning for the 1984 election.

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