For Christ's Sake

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.

One of the joys of following a theater company over time, especially an ensemble company, is the unexpected pleasure of repetition and accumulation. You're not only watching an actor play the current role, you're also remembering past roles. A bit like watching an old friend tackle the different stages of life. You recognize the connections, the commonalities and also the stark juxtapositions.

That's what makes the Evidence Room's decision to do playwright Sarah Ruhl's Passion Play so promising. Artistic Director, Bart DeLorenzo has always had a gift for picking interesting scripts and it's the same mechanics of repetition and accumulation that provide the engine for the play.

The conceit for the three acts is three different communities who all put up their own production of a passion play: (you remember - the religious epic that chronicles the life of Christ). Each act tackles a different village, a different time period. We begin in England in 1575, then to the famed Oberammergau in 1934 on the cusp of the Third Reich, and finally to Spearfish, South Dakota in 1969 on the verge of the Vietnam War.

What remains constant across all three is the stock company of actors and the part they play in the drama. And all three communities share a kind of sweet 'aw, shucks' quality -- well to the extent that Germany on the verge of Nazi domination can be folksy.



The play falls loosely into the mold of big important historic idea plays. You know: where transposing the past and the present reveal something about both; and where we discover unexpected parallels and larger political connections across time.

On the micro level those connections, those repetitions are fruitful and great fodder for the actors. The cast has fun embodying the three different styles and watching the repetition of the same scene creates an 'inside joke' sensibility with the audience. It's a backstage drama filled with forbidden love, unwanted pregnancies, familial rivalries that all revolve loosely around the question 'what does it mean to play Christ?' Or Mary?

But it's on the macro level that the script stumbles. Ms. Ruhl seems to be aspiring for a bigger message and oddly it's the success of this production that reveals its limitations.

An example: within each act -- the production is visited, deus ex machine style, by the ruler of the day. In England it's Queen Elizabeth, Germany: Hitler, and America: Ronald Reagan. Now, the actress Shannon Holt steals the show playing all three parts. It's almost worth the two and half hours just to see her . . . but after the wonderful shock of her performance settles in, I couldn't help but think 'wait, what's the through line from Elizabeth to Hitler to Reagan?'

The trouble is the play sets you up to look for connections and when the play doesn't weave together all the different threads well . . . it feels more like an academic exercise than transcendent vision.

If, like me, you're a fan of the Evidence Room, go to enjoy the familiar faces. Otherwise enjoy the small stuff and forgive the production for not tying everything up.

Passion Play plays at the Odyssey Theatre in West LA through March 16.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.

Running time 2 hours 45 minutes with one intermission.

Clarification: The production is an Odyssey Theatre/Evidence Room production


Banner image: (L-R) Shannon Holt, Beth Mack, Tobias Baker, Amanda Troop, Daniel Bess, Christian Leffler, John Charles Meyer and Dorie Barton in Passion Play. Photo by Enci