Sarah Ruhl’s “Passion Play,” the season opener at the Yale Repertory Theater, goes everywhere. Following three historical productions of the Christian passion play, it travels from Elizabethan England to 1930s Oberammergau, Germany, to late-20th century South Dakota; it deals with themes ranging from God to politics to sex to theater itself; it evokes laughter, awe and puzzlement. No wonder it adds up to three hours of drama, not including the two 15-minute intermissions that break up the three acts. But anyone who’s been abroad could tell you that the fulfillment of travel much more than makes up for its annoyances — just as this far-ranging production is well worth the physical and emotional effort of sitting through it.
The strength of the cast in particular eases the gluteal discomfort of a three-and-a-half hour night at the theater. Polly Noonan hits the perfect mixture of endearing and disconcerting in her roles as the Village Idiot and a small child, and Susan Pourfar is spellbinding in the various incarnations of Mary 1, the character who plays the Virgin Mary in each act.
That’s not to say the ensemble doesn’t have its flaws. Strangely, though Kathleen Chalfant may be the most critically acclaimed actor in the “Passion Play” cast, her appearance as Hitler in the second act is one of the most confusing portrayals in the play. Her body language shows no attempt to hide the fact that she’s a woman in drag. Her walk is a hip-swaying saunter, and instead of the firmly raised arms of a dictator, Chalfant’s gestures are those of a movie star, including lazy fist pumps and two fingers kissed and extended in a salute. It may be a purposeful choice on the part of director Mark Wing-Davey, but it makes Chalfant seem like she simply doesn’t know how to play the role, and it also detracts from the historically accurate atmosphere of the act. Similarly, in the midst of her impressively eerie portrayal of Reagan in the third act, Chalfant readopts a feminine posture during an aside to the audience. Though she later continues imitating the former president’s body language, her momentary reversion to femininity makes the rest of her portrayal less convincing.
Reagan is not the only character in this play making unsatisfactory asides. Chalfant’s Hitler and Queen Elizabeth both give speeches directed at the audience, and in the third act Felix Solis’ character, a Vietnam veteran, does as well. This choice to break the fourth wall is sometimes a powerful one, particularly when Solis’ veteran enters from a side door of the theater and speaks about his own experiences as an audience member. But Solis’ announcement at the end of the play that “It is good to be awake” is, like a number of Chalfant’s asides, an unnecessary explanation of the play’s political message that detracts from its power.
“Passion Play” tends to succeed most when it allows viewers to draw their own conclusions. Wing-Davey and scenic designer Allen Moyer accomplish this in part through the play’s skillful and often moving use of props, from enormous fish puppets to water that pours out of a table. The production also includes a projection screen that covers part of three walls of the stage, which is used judiciously and effectively to establish setting and atmosphere. Much as the Christian passion play itself might do, these elements of the production engage the audience on a deeply visceral, symbolic level.
Yet Ruhl’s “Passion Play” also features poetic, often playful dialogue whose allusions and wordplay suggest connections across centuries and between characters. Sometimes the effect is somber, such as a little girl’s recounting of “Hansel and Gretel” in the Oberammergau act, which subtly but forcefully foreshadows the imminent presence of ovens in a very different context. At other times it is simply thought-provoking — the Vietnam veteran, who plays Pilate before his military service, is the pilot of a ship in the war. And at many moments it is funny; in an amusing twist on traditional ideas of taboo, a Catholic priest on the run from Queen Elizabeth asks in a stage whisper, “Would anyone here like to confess their sins?” “I would!” a character says. And the priest replies, “Meet me ’round the corner after dark!”
“Passion Play” may lead its audience around corners, up trees, and across oceans and centuries, but with a surprise at every turn, it doesn’t leave a moment for the viewer to get tired. All of the play’s diverse elements contribute to making it a richly powerful theatrical experience, one that the rest of the Yale Rep’s plays this season will have to work hard to live up to.