Sarah Ruhl’s “Passion Play,” which opens today at the Yale Repertory Theater, involves more than its title might suggest. For one thing, the production itself is not a passion play, but rather a dramatization of different groups of actors involved in the performance of one.
And since the three-act production actually consists of three smaller plays, each of which presents a different community’s production of the biblical drama, it is technically not even a single play.
This night of theater spans 500 years and two continents. The first act presents members of a persecuted Catholic community in Elizabethan England; the second treats the residents of a German town called Oberammergau in 1934; and the final act examines the production of the passion play from 1969 to 1984 in the town of Spearfish, N.D.
All of these community productions really existed, and some are still active — the Black Hills Passion Play remains an important local tourist attraction in Spearfish, while the inhabitants of Oberammergau continue to perform the passion play as they have every 10 years since 1633.
Drawing from these real experiences, “Passion Play” examines themes of community, theater and the relationship between the two. In order to contrast characters’ relationships in “real life” with their relationships in the world of the play, each actor performs the same role in the passion play in all three acts.
“We’re different types of people in the community playing those parts, but there are echoes, remembrances, flashbacks — connections between the two characters.
For instance, [Pontius Pilate] the fish-gutter in the first part is related to the character that’s playing Jesus Christ; in the second part they’re lovers; and in the third part they’re brothers,” said Felix Solis, who plays Pontius.
The play examines the relationship between community and theater on an individual level, but also on a broader level — that of politics. Ruhl sees a real connection between theater and politics.
“I’m always fascinated watching makeup in elections. … I think politicians one some fundamental level are actors. They use acting coaches; they use rhetoric,” Ruhl said in an interview on the Web site TheaterMania.com.
There is surely a connection to be made with the role of theater and theatrics in today’s political arena, though the plays’ creators choose not to make that an explicit one.
“At one point we considered shifting stuff to the Bush era rather than Vietnam, but in the end that slight amount of distance helps [the audience] suddenly feel ‘Here we go again,’ ” director Mark Wing-Davey said.
“Passion Play” seems designed to make its audience wonder, in the intellectual, but also in the awe-struck, sense of the word.
This is in large part thanks to Ruhl’s broad but direct stage directions.
“[Ruhl] writes things like ‘Jesus flies up and the clouds part’ or ‘Pontius is carried out by giant fish,’ and Mark [Wing-Davey] and the designer [Allen Moyer] have found simple and spectacular ways of making those stage directions come alive,” said Kathy Chalfant, the Tony-nominated actress and Yale School of Drama Beinecke Fellow who plays Queen Elizabeth, Hitler and Reagan.
“Passion Play” will run through Oct. 11 at the University Theater.