Toward the end of Sarah Ruhl’s Passion Play—a three-part, 220-minute marathon, produced, appropriately enough, by Epic Theatre Ensemble—a character remarks, “I don’t know if this country needs more religion or less of it. Seems to me everyone needs a good night’s sleep.” Then, acknowledging the lateness of the hour, he turns to the audience and adds, “The more I talk, the less you sleep,” and concludes his sermon.
Happily, Passion Play, directed by Mark Wing-Davey, rewards wakefulness. As anyone who has seen Ruhl’s previous New York outings (The Clean House, Eurydice, In the Next Room, et al.) will testify, she’s a playwright of ambition, daring, and linguistic ability. These aspirations can sometimes lead her astray, and that playfulness easily shades into preciousness. But Passion Play, for all its scope, remains tightly focused, and twee bits are few.
Though they sound salacious, passion plays are theatrical performances that recount the suffering and death of Jesus Christ. (Not sexy at all, unless you have a very particular fetish.) Ruhl’s script encompasses three of them: The first occurs in an English village in 1575, the second in Bavaria in 1934, the third in the Reagan-era Badlands. Unlike classic passion plays, Ruhl’s skimps on the Greatest Story Ever Told, looking instead at what happens backstage. The audience catches some glimpses of the play proper—Hale Appleman, who plays Jesus and can really rock a loincloth, dangles often from the cross. But Ruhl’s concerns are secular: How well-suited are we for the parts we play in life? How do personal desires and disinclinations fit and unfit us for our roles?
In each section, the actors perform the same parts onstage, but different ones off it. Appleman (always Jesus in the passion plays) and Dominic Fumusa (always Pontius Pilate) in their offstage roles first portray cousins, then lovers, then brothers. T. Ryder Smith plays, gloriously, the presiding politicos: Elizabeth I, Hitler, Reagan. Ryder Smith aside, the acting Wing-Davey elicits is variable, as is his staging—intimate moments are affecting, attempts to depict the Holocaust and the Vietnam War embarrassing. And yet the totality of Epic’s event, which includes two intermission breaks to partake of wine and bagels (well, Jesus was a Jew), transcends these shortcomings. As an angel prepares for flight, as giant fish glide across the stage, as a woman in a tollbooth sings a mournful song, quibbling ceases. If Passion Play does not provide a religious experience, it does offer a wonderfully theatrical one.
Passion, the loin-driven kind, powers Sheila Callaghan’s Lascivious Something, a less-than-compelling play by a typically exciting writer. Though Callaghan’s pieces often challenge theatrical form and the limits of representation, this script attempts naturalism, awkwardly. On a Greek island in 1980, American ex-pat August (Rob Campbell) and his Hellenic wife (Elizabeth Waterston) are surprised by the arrival of Liza (Dana Eskelson), August’s former flame. What follows is a love triangle, which sometimes threatens to stretch into a parallelogram involving a girl named Boy.
Occasionally, the play—directed by Daniella Topol—deviates from realism. In the midst of a normal conversation, a character suddenly acts with particular fervor, but then the lights and sound hiccup and civilized behavior returns. The set—piles of rocks barely contained by chicken wire—also suggests something wild held uneasily in check. In Lascivious Something, desire, violence, myth, and poetry always lurk just underneath. Callaghan should let them up for air.