I’ve been waiting to read this play ever since I heard about it some three years ago. A sprawling three-part Passion Play, spread across history, written by my favorite playwright? I’m not even religious and that excites me. I missed the recent performance in Brooklyn, sadly – but the recent (and much-delayed) publication of the text was a suitable substitute.
As with most of Ruhl’s plays, it can be difficult to get a handle on the imagery. “The Sky Turns Red” is a repeated stage direction – okay, what does that mean? At the end, a character boards a giant boat and sails into the sky. Ummmm, okay…? This play was, however, filled with less (in my view, anyway) of the magical imagery that Ruhl’s other works (think Eurydice and Melancholy Play, for example). Instead, I saw Ruhl as letting the inherent magical power of the Passion Play take care of that – with, of course, some Ruhlian moments like the giant boat and some people dressed as fish and things like that thrown in for good measure.
The play is a bit disjoint, but I guess that comes from the structure: part one is set in Elizabethan times, part two in Germany during Hitler’s rise, and part three in the American Midwest between the midpoint of Vietnam and the midpoint of the Reagan era. Elizabeth herself shows up, as do Hitler and Reagan – in their respective times, but the earlier two also make an appearance at later moments. The general scope of the show seems to show the development of opinions towards religion, of opinions towards the theater, of opinions towards humanity… but it is only in the third act that a real undercurrent of “this affects us” comes through – the third part is, by my reading, the most powerful and the strongest of the three.
Beyond the religious and social aspects of this play – and they are, don’t get me wrong, major aspects – I found myself most drawn to the theatrical side. Obviously, all of Ruhl’s plays have a theatrical element to them – they are magical surrealism incarnate. This play, however, takes a metatheatrical step further and forces the reader/viewer to think about theater while watching a play. Each version of the play is presented in a different time with a different general goal, but they all provoke similar responses in their audiences. Elizabeth wanted the plays stopped while her people wanted to perform them in order to keep touch with their outlawed faith; Hitler and the Nazis wanted to see the vilification of the Jews brought to the fore; and the modern play… well, that’s a good question. But it made Reagan cry, so it was powerful nonetheless. The Passion Play implies a very specific form of theatrical communion (yep) but you can extrapolate: all plays are, by their nature, a suspension of reality in the hopes of seeing a heightened one. Even the plays where people are awful and you walk out of it hating your life – there’s still a sense that this was a different, a heightened, a suspended and inherently not-our-own reality. We go to plays to experience these things together and to then leave and feel that catharsis, TOGETHER. This play is, I think, Ruhl’s examination of that classical structure – how it has informed and affected theater for hundreds of years and how it continues to do so today.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. This isn’t the best of Ruhl’s work – it is a bit long on the page and a bit too disjoint to be enjoyed in just the reading. Onstage, I think I’d find it far better. Still, the thoughts that it provokes even in the reading – about the nature of theater, especially – are incredible and that is Ruhl’s greatest gift: she challenges us in a way that many playwrights couldn’t even dream to do.