‘Passion Play’ at Forum Theatre

During the Roman times, theatre was a savage sport: need a crucifixion, grab a slave.

During the Dark Ages, theatre disappeared under the cloak of Catholicism: better to have no fun, if having fun leads to eternal damnation.

During the Middle Ages, theatre reappeared, from under the cloak, as a Passion Play: if theatre teaches, let it teach the people about the passion, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Benjamin Cunis, Michael Litchfield, Jon Hudson Odom, Frank Britton, and Edward Christian. Photo by C. Stanley Photography
Benjamin Cunis, Michael Litchfield, Jon Hudson Odom, Frank Britton, and Edward Christian. Photo by C. Stanley Photography

Today, the Passion Play is big business, performed world wide to audiences numbering in the millions: with casts numbering in the thousands, sometimes with animals.

Sarah Ruhl’s (unruly) Passion Play, now playing at Forum Theatre in Silver Spring, is in a way a history of the Passion, from its “humble” beginnings as Church sanctioned community theatre, to its suppression by the protestant Queen Elizabeth I, to its propagation and endorsement by Herr Hitler, to its embrace by none other than America’s modern political messiah, Saint Ronald Reagan.

If one can be condemned by the company one keeps, then this play condemns the grandfather of modern American politics.

Yet, it does so with a huge grin on its face and a powerful punch in its back pocket.

Let’s start, front and center, with the play’s epic proportions. Yes, the three-act play runs nearly 4 hours. Yes, you will be tired when the lights finally go out, and it might even be too late for a nightcap. But no, at no point will you think that his play is way too long. And no, despite its thematic ramblings, Passion Play entertains and challenges its audiences every chance it gets. And yes, you will leave the theatre very happy you went.

Now, on to the play’s eleven-member cast. You will not find a more loveable ensemble anywhere on earth. Yes, that’s hyperbole, but if you are going to be stuck in the theatre with a group of high maintenance actors for 4 hours, they better be loveable. And from the get-go, this group is: they don’t emerge from the audience but they might as well have. We share their pain and admire their endurance: we have to watch and listen, but they have to sing for their supper (not too much singing and no supper, but you get the drift).

Tonya Beckman.  Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
Tonya Beckman. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

The host of fine performances begins with that of Jon Hudson Odom as the Vietnam Vet who returns to his South Dakota town much in need of grace; yet, it’s a grace the town’s Passion Play simply cannot deliver.

One of the questionable aspects of Ruhl’s Passion Play lies in the sheer power of its final act, and Odom’s riveting performance only highlights that question, as it brings emotional authenticity to an otherwise comically tongue-in-cheek script. Odom tackles his Act 1 fishmonger and Act 2 gay Nazi soldier characters with equal specificity, but Ruhl’s script gives his Vietnam soldier the one and only fully fleshed out character, left to suffer on the altar of endless war.

Riddled with PTSD and sexually betrayed by wife and brother, Odom’s soldier can no longer stomach the Passion Play’s pathetic Pontius Pilate. As biblical scholars will recall, Pilate was the Roman Prefect who oversaw the crucifixion of Christ. According to the four Gospels, he wants to spare Jesus’ life, while the Jewish crowds want him to die. Odom’s soldier, returning from the war with a new understanding of the power of the State, bitterly demands that Pilate accept responsibility.

The evening’s most tongue-in-cheek performances are led by the delightful-to-watch Tonya Beckman as she offers up camp impersonations of Queen Elizabeth I, Adolph Hitler, and Ronald Reagan.

A cuter Adolph could not be imagined! And Ronald — although Nancy would not approve, and his Republican disciples are doubtless furious at the defamation — her president, aka actor, absolutely embodies the Vet’s wisdom, “In a democracy, likability is tantamount to tyranny!”

But Odum and Beckman aren’t the only ones who turn in utterly engaging performances. The whole ensemble is literally bursting with joy.

Shayna Blass and Laura C. Harris play two sisters, cast as Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary respectively. Ms. Blass plays Magdalene sometimes with fire, sometimes with stubborn resistance, sometimes with simple love; whereas Ms. Harris gives the Virgin an irresistible combination of devotion, haughtiness, and grace.

Benjamin Cunis tackles the Christ, and he does a fine holier-than-thou job. His performance in the 3rd act is particularly noteworthy, as the Christ-betrayer of his soldier-brother.

Frank Britton and Edward Christian tackle the Passion’s carpenters with lively energy. Britton’s variations on a theme are particularly fascinating to watch, none more so than his strident, stuttering Pilate. Brittan also turns in a truly endearing bird that pecks breadcrumbs from a young girl’s hand. Christian’s Carpenter breathes a fine note of skepticism into an otherwise religiously fervent evening of passionate Passion players.

Matt Dewberry handles three disparate roles, Act 1’s visiting friar, Act 2’s visiting Englishman, and Act 3’s VA psychiatrist. He gives each a distinct twist, but most particularly the friar, who comically whips out his crucifix from beneath his cloaked priestliness whenever the protestants aren’t around.

For the theatrical insiders, Jonathan Feuer’s director will send giggles down your spine. From the director’s origin as a community organizer to his rising Third Reich pomposity, Feuer’s manifestation of the man with a vision is hilarious. Then, in Act 3, when Michael Litchfield steps in as the young Hollywood director, the theatrical fun turns as serious as Litchfield’s young Nazi hunting for homosexuals from Act 2.

And who will ever forget the whimsical village idiot-soothsayer-child, Megan Graves. Her spritely energy never fails to invigorate the stage with renewed life, and her child to Odom’s Vet is sheer brilliance.

As wonderful as the acting ensemble is for this production, the rough theatre’s scenography deserves an equal round of applause.

Directed with imaginative coherence by Forum artistic director Michael Dove, the Silver Spring theatre space has been turned into a huge town square. Using alley staging, Dove and Scenic Designer Andrew Cissna have created a host of rough theatre spectacles, from large fishes that dance across the stage to angels that are yanked skyward to sailboats that direct the wind. Patti Kalil’s property designs should be given their own ovation.

Shayna Blass and Laura C. Harris. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
Shayna Blass and Laura C. Harris. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

The rest of the production team did an equally fantastic job. Cissna’s lights are a marvel of rough theatre creativity: his car pulling into a late night toll booth is a twitter to behold. Chelsey Schuller handled the costumes, which in true medieval Passion style are donned right in front of the audience. Simple, yet elegant, they enhance the action with clarity. Finally, Composer Eric Shimelonis and Sound Designer Thomas Sowers contributed mightily to the overall beauty of the performance.

As Forum Theatre continues to explore America’s relationship to Christianity — Church and The Last Days of Judas Iscariot in recent years — Ruhl’s Passion Play and its unruly thematic composite provide a rich feeding ground for that questioning, as it delves into the complex socio-historical webs that have connected differing societies to Christ and his resurrection.

A crucial component of that relationship has to do with Christianity’s relationship to the State, to bigotry, to supremacist ideology, to group-think, and ultimately to war — all of which Passion Play touches upon, a little or a lot, with humor or with deadly seriousness.

After you leave the theatre, a bit tired and thirsty perhaps, you will have much to discuss on the ride home and more than enough to dream about that night and in the weeks to come.

Running Time: 3 hours and 50 minutes, that includes 2 intermissions.

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Passion Play plays though April 11, 2015 at Forum Theatre in residence at The Silver Spring Black Box – 8641 Colesville Road, in Silver Spring, MD. For tickets, purchase them online. Additional Pay-What-You-Can tickets will be available at the box office one hour prior to every performance.

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