A passionate portrayal

A man stands fastened to a cross, arms splayed and face contorted in agony. He is surrounded by people; some shout in triumph, while others weep with outstretched arms. Is this a scene from the latest Mel Gibson movie? No – it’s Passion Play, a Cycle, Arena Stage’s newest production by emerging playwright Sarah Ruhl.

Arena’s inaugural play of the season is certainly dynamic. Considered “epic” by Ruhl herself, Passion Play is essentially three plays in one. Each follows a group of people (played by the same 12 actors each time) in a particular setting – ranging from Elizabethan England, to Nazi Germany, to Vietnam-era South Dakota – as they rehearse and perform the traditional passion play, the story of Jesus, in their town.

Though its three-and-a half hour running time can seem off-putting, the play flows with astounding ease, deeply examining all three worlds. Each retelling of the story differs so vastly in setting and spirit, but they remain bound by personal echoes. In each new sequence, the actors retain their given roles in the passion play as they try to reconcile their lives with their roles.

After Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” in 2004 stirred debate, with some saying it was anti-Semitic, many have been apprehensive about taking on a passion play.

“Initially, we had some people saying that what we were doing is a variation on Mel Gibson, and of course it had nothing to do with that,” said Mark Bly, production dramaturge, in a recent interview with The Hatchet. “The funny thing about anybody encountering a work that has this title – audience members – is, if they don’t know what we’re up to, will sit there and wait for the crucifixion.”

Whatever its title may suggest, the passion play is secondary to its actors’ stories.

“The subject matter really is about the collision of religion and politics and the effect it has on each character … That’s the center of it, and not something religious,” Bly said.

Any religious fixtures that exist in the production are portrayed as segments of history, rather than as polarizing or proselytizing. The plays organizers went through nearly a year of research to select artwork and artifacts to create the most accurate historical background possible. As Bly noted, “(Director) Molly Smith used the images to reconstruct on the stage those tableaux, so that they are, in effect, a kind of modern photograph of those original paintings.”

Of course, playwrights have always taken license with certain aspects of history. Figures such as Queen

Elizabeth and Adolf Hitler, for instance, crash the rehearsals of the first and second plays. Queen Elizabeth forbids its production to suppress Catholicism and Hitler rewards its anti-Semitic roots. The characters are forced to deal with the outside pressures of political and religious trends within the confines of their interpersonal relationships.

Bly is confident that a play so extensively rich in detail and meaning will not be overlooked, either for its subject matter or its running time. “I think that if it’s good and if it’s saying something that has real resonance with society and is of consequence, it will get done,” he said. He also hopes that Arena’s willingness to take on “big plays” such as Passion Play, a Cycle, will motivate others to do the same.

“I think on a larger national level, at a time when theaters are retrenching, that we are showing that it is possible to do this work – that it is necessary to do this work.”

Passion Play, a Cycle will be at Arena Stage until Oct. 16. College night, when tickets are $10, is Thursday night. To purchase tickets, call 202-488-3300.

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