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Who’d have guessed that not one but two of D.C.’s theaters would be trafficking this fall in medieval Christian attitudes about Jews? In would-be timely takes on church and state and the scary things that happen when the two get too cozy? In the attempt to simultaneously personalize and universalize the stories of an unhappy few caught in the crossfire?
And who’d have guessed that neither company, never mind their variously vicious and laughable depictions of Christ-killing, baby-slaying, blood-drinking, horned Shylock-monsters, never mind the noble sacrifices and the poignant partings and the small struggles shadowed and eclipsed by wars, would be able to muster much in the way of the emotional? Such is the alchemy of theater: It can make thrilling drama from the stuff of the mundane, but sometimes its transmutations work in reverse.
Consider Passion Play, a Cycle, the admirable season-opening cliff-jump from Arena Stage. Blessed with quirky characters, lyrical language, impressive scope, even a dream ballet involving giant fish, Sarah Ruhl’s enormous, irreverent play has everything, with the notable exception of dramatic urgency. And at three-and-a-half hours long, it could use a little now and again.
An epic in three linked one-acts, each anchored by a Passion play performed in a society facing some tectonic shift, Ruhl’s marathon encompasses five centuries, opening with a Catholic-purging Elizabethan England and moving on to visit a Germany rushing to embrace Nazism and a modern America disillusioned in the wake of Vietnam—and somehow simultaneously dazzled by the blandly cheery blandishments of Reaganism. That’s three (maybe four) fraught cultural moments Ruhl’s playing with, and given that she’s prone to whimsy and wonder, and interested in what she calls “the nexus of religious rhetoric, politics, love and theatricality,” you’d think the result might be pretty exhilarating.
Granted, Ruhl’s sense of what theater can be—intelligent, inventive, expansive, alive to history and politics and the absurd—can’t be faulted. In just the first playlet, set in a village that’s still stubbornly enacting its famous version of Christ’s Passion in a 16th-century England whose Protestantism becomes daily and threateningly more official, Ruhl deploys a hottie fisherman (playing Jesus, natch) and his jealous hunchback cousin (as Pilate), plus a sexually restless blonde who’s got a lock on the part of the Virgin Mother and a Magdalene who secretly likes the ladies, not to mention a prophetically ranting Village Idiot who seems to have something to do with the fact that the sky keeps turning that apocalyptic shade of red. In 1934 Oberammergau, home of a famously anti-Semitic Passion play, she serves up a Jesus who can’t remember his lines (he’s pining for his Pilate, soon to join the Wehrmacht); in Act 3’s South Dakota, a Pilate betrayed by his brother and scarred from his part in America’s Southeast Asian adventures takes Passion-play realism one nail too far. Did I mention the playfully pointed cameo appearances by Hitler, Nixon, Reagan, and the Virgin Queen?
The playwright’s dramaturgy, though, isn’t nearly as sure as her vision is sweeping. She wants to fuse all this disparate business into a kind of bemused commentary on a God-plagued contemporary America—a positively Kushnerian ambition, and one Arena Stage is right to support—but alas, the connections come fitfully and on the surface when they come at all. And the stories themselves, for all their veneer of oddness and wonder (or perhaps because of it), never seem terribly involving; in making metaphor out of indisputably tragic moments in history, Ruhl somehow makes the stakes in each moment seem negligible.
Company chief Molly Smith directs with no little style, and she’s to be loudly commended for inviting a promising young playwright to come play with what looks like a substantial chunk of budget. Arena’s design team has worked mightily to realize the play’s marvels and its sense of mischief, too—news of a drowning inspires a disturbingly dazzling coup de théâtre early on, though admittedly the goose bumps don’t last as long as the special effect does—and the cast, inhabiting a piece that’s got to be playing havoc with their dreams, couldn’t be more committed. Howard W. Overshown and Felix Solis anchor the evening, playing the various men who in each era play Jesus and Pilate, respectively, and they’re superbly watchable. Ditto the Marys Virgin and Magdalene, played sensitively and with humor by Kelly Brady and Carla Harting. Polly Noonan (that compellingly off-putting Village Idiot, among others) and Robert Dorfman (he plays those heads of state who keep strolling in) lead a solid supporting ensemble whose standouts include Karl Miller and Edward James Hyland.
Ultimately, though, Ruhl’s eclectic essay is a series of impulses half-explored, ideas responded to but never resolved, themes aligned but hardly harmonized. Like the Passion plays it takes as inspiration, it’s an exercise in philosophy as much as in drama—and like them, it’s a little dubious on both counts.
Now consider The Disputation, the season opener from Theater J. Telling an audience its own stories is a time-honored part of what theater does, but dear god, The Disputation can be dull: Hyam Maccoby’s account of a famous medieval showdown between a learned Spanish rabbi and a church on the verge of co-opting the state feels like nothing so much as a history lesson that decided to dress up and put on a play.
Nick Olcott’s direction can be positively pageantlike, with forces squaring off in ranks at opposite sides of the stage and stepping out occasionally for spotlit orations. But then the twinned debates that anchor the evening’s two longish acts are…well, debates, with all the inherent drama that implies.
And Maccoby has given Olcott and his cast little in the way of actual characters to work with. In the scenelets interposed among courtroom arguments—a gesture, however perfunctory, in the direction of dramatic arc—Naomi Jacobson’s bloodthirsty queen, John Lescault’s philandering, indifferently Christian king, and Field Blauvelt’s worldly Jewish courtier are mere sketches. Andrew Long’s politically adept Dominican has a trifle more human conflict in him, as does the nobly suffering Reb Moses of Theodore Bikel, the veteran actor (he was a notable Tevye and the original Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music) whose passion for the project is apparently a large part of its reason for being. But only Edward Gero’s Brother Pablo Christiani, a convert from Judaism to a Catholicism whose militancy has left considerable scars on his soul, might have a life beyond the confines of Maccoby’s script.
Theater J suggests reasonably enough, in a program note, that a play tackling what this one tackles might provoke timely reflections on the eternal conflict between the authoritarian and the individualist flavors of faith. But this particular play—well, given Maccoby’s hagiographic portrayal of his modest scholar’s intellectual victory over a boorish, manipulative Christianity, few but the faithful are likely to find it anything but provoking.CP