Saturday, February 18, 2012

Passion, Politics and Religion at Play in ISU's "Passion Play"

There is a lot of passion in Sarah Ruhl's "Passion Play" on stage at ISU's Center for the Performing Arts. Not just The Passion of the Christ, which you might expect, but passion among actors, directors, crew, politicians, visitors, rivals, all surrounding how a village and its villagers -- in rural England under Elizabeth I, Oberammergau during Hitler's reign, and Spearfish, SD in the late 20th century -- put on a show about the last week in the life of Jesus Christ. There are lovers, friends, cousins, brothers, sisters, all struggling to find a way put on a play.

I love Ruhl's writing, and "Passion Play" is some of her best, at times poetic in the slightly warped way she does so well, at times funny or sad or moving or provocative, but always as elusive as it is intriguing. As Ruhl examines how people's lives relate to religion in terms of wanting guidance from above, trying hard not to waver, twisting piety for political or social gain, or wielding mighty weapons in the name of faith, she looks at the connection between religion and politics, as well as between religion and theater. There is, in fact, a lot about theater and the people who create it in this play. Ruhl is not above pointing out the foibles of theater people anymore than clergymen or kings.

These are big issues, and Ruhl gives each era and its characters a full act to tell their chapter of the story. At Illinois State, under the direction of Brandon Ray, the play is quite long. There's no getting around that. On opening night, it ran at about 4 hours and 15 minutes, right up there in "Gone With the Wind," "Long Day's Journey Into Night" and "Angels in America" territory. There were definitely times when the pace lapsed a little, when it seemed there were a few too many set pieces to move or costume changes or entrances or exits to wait for, but mostly, the time was well spent on the depth of Ruhl's vision, with some terrific character work from ISU's undergraduate actors and some absolutely beautiful stage pictures courtesy of scenic designer John C. Stark and lighting designer Julie Mack.

The script asks for stage magic, and in this "Passion Play," it absolutely gets it.

It also asks a lot of its actors, who play different people, albeit people who are cast in the same roles in each of the three Passion Plays within Ruhl's "Passion Play." Matt Bausone is especially good as three men slated to play Pontius Pilate. His first character is a physically twisted little fish-gutter who hates his cousin, the one who plays Jesus, the second is a confident Nazi soldier in love with the man playing Jesus, and the third is a man who goes off to Vietnam and comes back severely damaged by the experience, leaving his brother, who plays Jesus, safe at home. Bausone makes each Pontius different, but all three compelling, especially #3, making for a lovely, stirring final image to the play.

Jeff Kurysz is all three of the Jesus actors, one pious and distant, one timid and unsure, and the last a bit arrogant and selfish. I liked him best as the second one, the dutiful son and sweet lover who wants to do the right thing, but makes the absolute wrong choice in the chilling conclusion to Act II. His pompous actor in Act III has his moments, as well.

I also enjoyed Ashlyn Hughes' trio of crazy girls; they're called Village Idiot #1, Village Idiot #2 and Violet, but they function something like Shakespearean fools, and costume designer Tyler Wilson has even given her a clown-like motley outfit in Act III. Hughes is very effective as the little voice -- always the outsider -- who pops up out of nowhere at inconvenient times.

Clayton Joyner and Caitlin Boho are the two Marys in the piece (the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene) and they're both effective, especially in the Elizabethan section of the play, where they are given the most to do.

Others of note in the cast include Owais Ahmed as a cheery visiting Englishman writing a book about theater in the German section; Carlos Kmet doing a Leonardo turn as an Italian man who can make people fly in 1575; and David Fisch, whose Queen Elizabeth costume has to be seen to be believed and whose Ronald Reagan is a little too reminiscent of the real one for my taste.

Sarah Ruhl's "Passion Play" is not the Passion Play, but three small, human, flawed Passion Plays of its own. Yes, it asks a lot of its audience, and yes, I hope the cast and crew can find their way to trimming 20 minutes or so off its running time, but it's worth the wait and well worth your attention.

By Sarah Ruhl

Illinois State University
Center for the Performing Arts

Director: Brandon Ray
Scenic Designer: John C. Stark
Costume Designer: Tyler Wilson
Hair and Makeup Designer: Wendy Wallace
Lighting Designer: Julie Mack
Composer and Sound Designer: Jason Tucholke
Dramaturges: Ianthe Dempsey, Janelle Melgaard, Sarah Salazar
Dialect and Voice Coach: Lori Adams
Fight Director: Tony Pellegrino
Stage Manager: Hanna Supanich-Winter

Cast: Matt Bausone, Jeff Kurysz, Clayton Joyner, Caitlin Boho, Owais Ahmed, Ashlyn Hughes, Keith Jackewicz, Frank Huber, Brody Murray, Carlos Kmet, David Fisch, Kyle McClevey, Nick Villareal-Lindmark, Deirdre McNulty, Kayla Stroner, Hisako Sugeta.

Remaining Performances: February 22, 23 and 24 at 7 pm; February 19 at 4 pm and February 25 at 4 pm.

Running time: 4:15 with two 10-minute intermissions

For ticket information, click here.

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