Theater Review: Goodman’s Passion Play explores three periods of history

Goodman’s production of playwright Sarah Ruhl’s Passion Play is already stirring controversy. Audiences and critics leave the theater with mixed reactions based on the length of the play (3-1/2 hours with two intermissions) and the convoluted construction of the story of the Passion play in three periods of history.

Ruhl, a native of Chicago, is described in The New York Times as “among the most acclaimed and accomplished young playwrights on the contemporary scene.” The winner of many awards, her work has been produced in theaters throughout the country and internationally. She was a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Clean House at the Goodman last season. Another of her works, Dead Man’s Cell Phone, opens at Steppenwolf, March 27, 2008.

Each part of the trilogy consists of the people who take the roles in the Passion play, their personal lives and historically significant personalities of the period. Part One is set in England in 1575. Queen Elizabeth rules. Banishing Catholics and destroying the church, she carries on her father’s mission. Part Two goes to Germany in 1934. Hitler’s reign begins, and the Oberammergau production with its Pharisees fits his plan for the destruction of the Jews. 1984 centers on the Vietnam War and the presidency of Ronald Reagan. The returning veteran exhibits the mental difficulties of those who have witnessed the bloody deaths of civilians.

The cast adapts beautifully. So much occurs, a review cannot possibly cover it all. Brendan Averett is Carpenter 1 and assumes the role of Christ. Kristen Bush plays the roles of Mary evolving from a country girl to the wife of the disturbed veteran. Brian Sgambati is Pontius Pilate, but as the Vietnam veteran, his anxiety and hallucinations are the most memorable of the whole production. As Queen Elizabeth/Adolph Hitler/Ronald Reagan, T. Ryder Smith is amazing.

There were moments when the staging and props recall the work of Mary Zimmerman. Reflecting, it seems that the play consists of dreams often confusing but incorporating nearly every aspect of memory. Playing through Oct. 21, Passion Play challenges intellectually, provides high moments of comedy, and demonstrates the genius of Sarah Ruhl. For further information, call (312) 443-3800.

from the Oct. 10, 2007, issue

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