Talk About the Passion


Show #38: Passion Play, Actors Ensemble of Berkeley, April 22.

Justin Liszanckie and Meryn MacDougall in Passion Play. Photo by Anna Kaminska.

By Sam Hurwitt

Berkeley has been lucky enough to see a lot of playwright Sarah Ruhl’s work in recent years, largely thanks to Berkeley Repertory Theatre, which gave her a revelatory local introduction with 2004’s luminous Eurydice, in which a daughter reunites with her father in the afterlife, their memories wiped blank by the river Lethe. She returned to Berkeley Rep in 2009 with In the Next Room (or the vibrator play), exploring the Victorian-era invention of the vibrator to treat “hysteria” in women, a comedy that won the Glickman Award for best play to debut in the Bay Area and then went on to Broadway. That same year, Woman’s Will performed The Clean House, featuring a housecleaner who won’t clean because she’s searching for the perfect joke, and SF Playhouse produced Dead Man’s Cell Phone, in which a woman answers the phone of a dead stranger and gets sucked into his life. Playing right now at Berkeley Rep is Ruhl’s new translation of Anton Chekhov’s classic Three Sisters.

But it’s the humble community theater across town, Actors Ensemble of Berkeley, that’s finally giving the West Coast its first taste of Passion Play, Ruhl’s three-part, three-hour-and-45-minute epic depicting parallel village troupes reenacting the death of Jesus in 1575 England, 1934 Germany and 1969 and 1984 South Dakota. That’s a bit of a surprise for such an ambitious work that’s played large regional theaters across the country, but there’s something awfully appropriate about it too, because the religious play being enacted in all three parts is the very essence of community theater.

The characters in each era are very different, but they’re all playing the same characters.  That is, the same guy plays the three guys who play Jesus, and the same for Pilate and both Marys. The same actor plays all three directors, another actress is the village idiot, and so on. Even though one Jesus’ personality couldn’t be father from the last Jesus, there are occasional echoes where someone says something her predecessor said, and a few people, such as a pair of carpenters, remain more or less the same. In all of the three eras, the passion play is a rarity, a lost art surviving only in a few places, and each one of the passion plays is inspired by an actual historical one that existed in that time and place. The one in Elizabethan England is endangered because of Elizabeth’s crackdown on Catholicism, the one in Hitler’s Germany is steeped in anti-Semitism, and in South Dakota a troubled Vietnam vet wants to strongly emphasize Pilate’s role as just a tool of the state.

Actors Ensemble’s opening night was on Good Friday, appropriately enough, and at first things weren’t going at all well. Because of the uncommon length of the play, curtain time is at 7 p.m. Whoever was supposed to man the box office at Live Oak Theater seemed to have forgotten the earlier-than-usual time and hadn’t shown up, leaving another company member to scramble to make things presentable and figure out where the tickets were kept. “But everything onstage is on track,” he assured the sparse opening-night crowd. I’ve had some experiences there when that definitely wasn’t the case, but lo and behold, it turned out to be true.

Director Jon Wai-keung Lowe’s production has a number of admirably artful touches and some amusing musical choices during the two intermissions such as a German version of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” before the Nazi Germany chapter. His sets are largely projected onto a rustling white paper curtain, and he makes inventive use of it in the first of the plays, with a little shadow puppetry and several scenes played out by the actors in silhouette from behind the curtain. Curiously and regrettably, this element of the staging is more or less abandoned for the 20th-century parts, with the shadow play thereafter reserved strictly for background scenery.

In the Elizabethan section, the actress who plays the Virgin Mary, conveniently named Mary, leers after John, the fisherman who plays Jesus. “I didn’t ask to play his mother,” she protests when the other Mary chides her for coveting her own son. It’s actually this Virgin Mary who talks about how cold she gets without a man to share her bed, while Mary 2, who plays Mary Magdalene, is much less interested in male company (though that’s not to say she’d be averse to the other kind). When the unmarried Mary 1 finds herself in a family way, they conspire to pass it off as another miracle.

Addie Ulrey is sometimes too understated as the various versions of the Virgin Mary, but her mildness contrasts reasonably well with some of the drama that surrounds her. Elena Ruggiero makes a wry and worldly Mary Magdalene who’s also grappling with her sexuality. And Jacob Cribbs is delightfully villainous as John’s fiercely resentful cousin the fish gutter—enough so that when he says he plays “Pilate … and Satan,” it gets a laugh because he’s so obviously well cast—and his Pontius’s over-the-top death scene is priceless.

A devoted and beatific Jesus in part one, Justin Liszanckie is more sullen and reluctant in part two as a son who takes over the role when his father is too old to play it. Here Cribbs is a much more self-assured Pilate, cool and confindent, and the two German actors have a delightfully engaging debate about whether they’d rather be a just beggar or an unjust king, and so on. There’s also a lot of homoerotic tension between them, which is a dangerous thing in Nazi Germany, as is driven home powerfully by Eric Reid as a flirtatious but menacing army officer.  Meryn MacDougall’s Village Idiot, who did in fact seem crazed in the Elizabethan section while playing with an anachronistic jack-in-the-box, is Jewish in the German section, still playful, still an outsider and still called the Village Idiot, but with an added sense that things will go very poorly for her.

Cribbs is especially powerful as the Dakota actor who plays Pilate, who goes off to Vietnam and returns haunted and jumpy, with severe PTSD and a very loose and jittery grip on reality; he’s very much the central focus of the third part. Before he leaves he marries Mary, who plays the Virgin Mary (Ulrey again). He asks his brother who plays Jesus (Liszanckie) to look after her, which maybe isn’t the best idea. This time the village idiot role is filled by Violet, their young daughter, who seems to remember some of the events of the earlier parts.

None of the characters in the third part have names, except for Mary, Violet and the cameos by Queen Elizabeth, Hitler and Reagan. And yes, all three of them appear to our somewhat deluded soldier. All three are portrayed by Lisa Wang, who doesn’t play the characters so much as represent them, stony-faced and universalized, avoiding caricature but also much in the way of distinguishing characteristics. But even as written, these historical figures seem abstract, speaking not to the people around them so much as to us, almost exclusively in monologue.

Reid gives a zesty, very funny performance as an Elizabethan machinist tasked with creating a flying apparatus and pops up again as the arrogant young director who tries to make the Dakota pageant more professional.  Our Mary Magdalene Ruggiero plays earnest true believers in the second and third parts, and Norman Macleod puts his rich, cultured voice to good use as a dotty friar and a curious scholar who come to study the English and German passion plays, as well as a VA shrink in the third part. The very tall Ben Grubb plays the directors of the three passion plays, and is particularly amusing as the uptight German one. Scott Alexander Ayres and Douglas Kaufman remain constant as two carpenters, the first one a stutterer (at first overdone, but mellowing out over the course of the night) and the second a sardonic skeptic.

There are bits and pieces that don’t quite gel, both in the play itself and in the execution. A bit about the sky mysteriously turning red comes up in all three parts with diminishing frequency or importance, and nothing much comes of it. The same with people’s dreams of fish.  And having the Elizabethan friar take off his cloak to dramatically reveal the priestly robes that totally weren’t hidden by his cloak in the first place comes off as unintentionally funny. It’s a sprawling, sometimes messy undertaking, but the triptych is fascinating throughout, at times marvelously poetic and hilarious at others, and largely satisfying for all its epic length and roughness around the edges.

Passion Play runs through May 21 at Live Oak Theater, 1301 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley.

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