BWW Reviews: PASSION PLAY presented by Forum Theatre

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When Sarah Ruhl was a student at Brown University, she embarked on a journey that would culminate in her sprawling epic, Passion Play, which was first performed at Arena Stage in 2005. Her three act tome tells the story of a group of actors performing the story of the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Each act is set in a different time frame, yet what happens off-stage, which vaguely mirrors the actions on stage, is the heart of the story.

The first act, set in Elizabethan England, is in the aftermath of the Religious Settlement of 1559, which proclaimed Queen Elizabeth Supreme Head of the Church. With the troupe of mainly Catholic actors portraying the roles in their Passion Play, the upcoming insurgency provides the political conflict of the era, but the conflict of the cast is what is at hand. Mary 1 (Laura C. Harris) is playing Mary in the play and becomes pregnant by Pontius Pilate (Jon Hudson Odom). Mary of course doesn't want to lose the role, so she convinces everyone that she has become pregnant by Immaculate Conception. Harris plays the role perfectly with virginal innocence, yet with a dark side. Odom, as the town fisherman tasked to play Pilate, handles Ruhl's quasi-Shakespearean verse with great elegance, while keeping the working class actor grounded.

The second act, this time set in 1930s Bavaria during the rise of Hitler has the same basic premise. This time, however, the conflict within the cast is again with Odom as Pontius Pilate, who is tormented by his love for the actor Eric, who is playing Jesus (Benjamin Cunis). Odom, again shines in this act, and his versatility shines through playing the same "character" as the first act, but with a different modus operandi. Cunis also in this act is wonderful as the actor turned Nazi soldier who is tasked with strife as he has to take away the one Jewish actor in the troupe.

The second act, which is not as strongly written as the first and third is a little too reminiscent of John van Druten's I Am A Camera, complete with a traveling writer documenting the drama. Ruhl, as an author, tends to overwrite and a lot of the characters and scenes in this act tend to fall into clichés.

The final and strongest act of the epic is set in South Dakota from 1969 - 1984. This time, Odom again shines as the Vietnam Vet coming home from the war with PTSD who is trying to reclaim his life with his wife and daughter (Harris and Megan Graves, respectively). Odom is tasked in this play to perform the same character three very different ways, and in this particular act, must go through the rise and fall of a man in one act. Also strong in this act is Harris again as Mary 1 who is conflicted between the love of her husband and the affair she has with his brother (Cunis), who may or may not be the father of their child, Violet (Graves).

Ruhl has a very unique writing style, and in this three act epic, you see her tackle a variety of styles, but the writing in the third act is superb. Each act could stand alone as its own one act play, but the final act is a nice culmination of themes and motifs introduced in the other two acts. The one main problem with the play is the political figure. In act one Queen Elizabeth arrives to shut down the play. In the second act, Hitler arrives to see the play, and in the final act, President Reagan shows up in town on his reelection campaign to see the play and give a speech. It is hard to tell is Ruhl intends this as a morality play or a political statement, or both, because the politic aspect of it just scratched the surface enough to notice, but not really to impact, so I wonder its usefulness.

As the political figure, the exquisite Tonya Beckman is phenomenal as the trio of characters. Beckman stepped into the role at the last minute after an injury sidelined Rick Hammerly (who I would have loved to see as Queen Elizabeth). Beckman is the consummate performer and had I not known she was a last minute replacement, I would have never guessed. She is perfect in all three roles, and in the final act appears as all three. The only problem with the character is the way Hitler is portrayed as if he stepped out of a production of Springtime for Hitler. I don't fault Beckman for this at all, in fact, having a woman play the role adds to the absurdity of it, I just think Ruhl made the character, and the whole second act as a whole, too farcical.

The remainder of the cast is superbly cast. There is not a weak link in the cast. Besides the aforementioned Odom, Harris, and Cunis, the other through line in the show is played by Megan Graves as the village idiot and Violet. Graves, who lately seems to be type cast in these dim-witted roles, plays this to her advantage and is able to exude dumbness and innocence smartly. Shayna Blass, as the other Mary, and troupe players Frank Britton, Edward Christian, Matt Dewberry, Jonathan Feuer, and Michael Litchfield round out the excellent 11-member cast.

Forum Artistic Director Michael Dove helms this three act epic, and does a remarkable job of essentially directing three plays. While each act is unique, Dove does an amazing job of finding a through line in the narrative and keeps the pacing up and expertly utilized the Silver Spring Black Box in a runway style set-up. Lighting Designer Andrew Cissna does a remarkable job lighting the "play" with simple work lights, while lighting the environment in dark tones that adds to the intensity of the text. Costume Designer Chelsey Schuller and Properties Designer Patti Kalil add their mark on this production and the accompanying score by Eric Shimelonis is well executed by sound designer Thomas Sowers.

Passion Play clocks in at just shy of four hours, with two 10 minute intermissions, but thankfully, it never feels that long. Dove and his troupe of actors keep the audience engaged. Sure, Ms. Ruhl could have probably edited some of her opus to make it a bit shorter, but Forum does an impressive job of presenting Passion Play, with, well... passion.

Passion Play runs through April 11, 2015, at the Silver Spring Black Box Theater (formerly Round House Silver Spring)-8641 Colesville Road, Silver Spring, Maryland. For tickets, call the box office at 301-588-8279, or purchase them online.

Photo credits: C. Stanley Photography

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