It’s not every spring evening that you get to troop through Toronto’s Riverdale neighbourhood, led by Her Late Majesty, Queen Elizabeth I, and guided by people carrying large fish puppets. The occasion for this unusual procession is Passion Play, a delightfully offbeat, dual-venue staging of Sarah Ruhl’s equally offbeat 2005 trilogy about religion, politics and theatre.
This Canadian premiere, co-produced by young Toronto indie companies Outside the March, Convergence Theatre and Sheep No Wool (with an assist from veteran Crow’s Theatre), is being performed partly in Withrow Park and partly in Eastminster United Church. Hence the outside march, between Part 1 and Part 2, from the park to the church – a 10-minute stroll north to the Danforth.
The procession could also be symbolic, since Ruhl’s three-play cycle takes us on a historical journey that begins in Elizabethan England and concludes in Reagan-era America, with a stop in Nazi Germany. Each instalment in this four-hour odyssey focuses on a group of community actors rehearsing a traditional retelling of Jesus Christ’s trial and crucifixion. As they do, they become caught up in personal identification with their weighty roles as well as in the political climate of the time.
It’s a work whose tone isn’t easily summed up. It is, by turns, whimsical, ironical, poetic, tragic. Not that this is any surprise coming from American playwright Ruhl, best known to Toronto audiences for The Clean House and In the Next Room (or the vibrator play), both Pulitzer Prize finalists and both hard-to-define comedies. With Passion Play, you just have to go with her flow and, as this rewarding production reveals, things gets richer and more thought-provoking every step of the way.
Part 1 is presented al fresco in Withrow Park and, under Alan Dilworth’s witty direction, comes off like a medieval soap opera. An English village attempting to mount its annual Passion Play runs into problems when the randy young maid cast as the Virgin Mary (Mayko Nguyen) becomes pregnant by the gloomy fish gutter playing Pontius Pilate (Cyrus Lane). But the production is already at risk thanks to an edict from the Virgin Queen (a splendidly imperious Maev Beaty), which bans all Catholic pageantry on pain of beheading.
Adolf Hitler takes a far more favourable attitude to the ritual. He shows up late into Part 2, set in Oberammergau, in 1934 and staged with intimate intensity by Aaron Willis in Eastminster United’s little auditorium. The Führer (Beaty again) has come to help celebrate the Bavarian town’s 300-year-old Passion Play and use it as a vehicle for his gospel of anti-Semitism. Meanwhile, two local misfits – the closeted gay man portraying Jesus (Andrew Kushnir) and an obstreperous Jewish orphan (Amy Keating) – struggle with the iron-fisted conformity closing in around them.
The third part, directed with flair by Mitchell Cushman, is satirical and surreal as it follows a shattered Vietnam vet (Lane) who returns home to Spearfish, S.D., and tries to resume his old role as Pilate in its badlands Passion. His agonized questioning of the biblical text – and by extension, American values – is contrasted with the folksy platitudes of another actor, U.S. President Ronald Reagan (you guessed it – Beaty).
Ruhl evokes a timeless feeling by linking the three parts with a string of recurring images – a red sky, the moon, fish – and filling them with echoes of previous scenes and dialogue. The 11 cast members perform variations on the same roles in each play. Watching them here is like seeing a condensed history of acting, as they move from the broad amateur style of Part 1 to the heightened drama of the second section and, finally, to naturalism. By Part 3, the guy playing Jesus has even become a method actor.
While there are a handful of leading characters, this is one of those equable ensemble shows in which no one performance demands to be singled out. I appreciated Jordan Pettle’s various bossy directors and Keating’s child and childlike innocents as much as Lane’s tortured Pontius Pilates and Beaty’s famous-person cameos.
I also love the way this production, like the play itself, is a homage to community-based theatre, from Jung-Hye Kim’s minimal sets to Samuel Sholdice’s makeshift sound effects. And the sense of community spills into the audience so that, by the end of this long but lively experience, we feel as if we’ve all witnessed something strange, funny, occasionally moving, possibly profound and undeniably unique.
Full disclosure: Due to rain, Monday’s opening had to be performed entirely at the church. However, I caught a preview of Part 1 in the park on the sunny Sunday beforehand. But rain or shine, this is a theatrical event you won’t want to miss.