Sarah Ruhl's Passion Play has epic scope for such a focused subject — those medieval pageants about the suffering of Jesus Christ. Epic Theatre Company has trimmed the play down to just under three hours from its full length of nearly a third more, but the scope and potency is all there in the production directed by Theodore Clement (at the Zabinski Studio in the Hope Artiste Village in Pawtucket through December 16).
JESUS AND PONTIUS Lafond and Cullen in Passion Play.
The play itself is a masterful accomplishment, not taking itself seriously despite its intimidating ambition, and its intentions are clearly sketched out here. There are some talented, confident performances going on, although some less experienced actors are sometimes allowed to overact.
The language is occasionally lyrical, as befits characters whose emotions can be too inchoate to express literally. It's all coming from a writer who originally intended to be a poet, after all. That was before playwright Paula Vogel took her under wing at Brown University, where she began what became known as her Passion Play cycle. Completion took eight years.
The play's length is necessary because each of the three acts depicts the interpersonal turmoil surrounding three presentations in three historical periods: Elizabethan England, Nazi Germany, and the Midwest in both the Vietnam and Reagan eras. This might as easily be named A Play About Passions, for fervent feelings are aroused that have nothing to do with religion but plenty to do with human suffering.
Yet now and then there is also humor, unavoidably, since people in fraught circumstances are prone to absurd reactions. Queen Elizabeth (Kevin Broccoli) in a red fright wig totters in occasionally, offering glib suggestions, as authority figures tend to do. Comic relief is also provided by the Village Idiot (Meghan Rose Donnelly), delightful as a kind of court jester in each of the sections.
Broccoli also plays Hitler and Reagan, but most of the 10 other actors have the same roles or character names in each period. The play is also about the difficulties of theatrical production and the passions aroused in actors on and offstage, so there is the same Director (Adam Florio) throughout. Taking our perspective as observer of these goings-on, Billy Flynn is a visiting friar in the Elizabethan period, a note-taking Englishman in Germany, and finally a VA hospital psychiatrist.
Of course, the most contentious back-and-forth here, whatever the era, is bound to be between Jesus (Charles Lafond) and Pontius Pilate (Patrick Cullen), set up nicely in the first part. Here Pontius hates his cousin for getting the better role year after year. That's further complicated by the Virgin Mary (Elizabeth Labrecque) lusting after the Village Carpenter who is playing Jesus, frustrated that "he's chaste as a clam." Further weighing down the conflict is that Mary Magdalene (Sarah Barlow) confesses to dreaming of "women kissing me full on the lips." On guard, VM.
The roles are particularly on point in the Germany section, when the Village Idiot is considered such because she is a particular kind of outsider, a Jew. Here the Director pertinently observes that "there are times when men need a director . . . someone with vision." As for Pontius and Jesus, the former is a soldier, and they have some intelligent conversation about that function in that period in history, intensified emotionally by their own kissing full on the lips.