For the sheer pleasure of being on hand at the birth of something startlingly original, Arena Stage's jaunty, warm, lively production of "Passion Play, a Cycle" qualifies as the benchmark of the new season. Sarah Ruhl's fluid trilogy chronicling the evolving linkage of belief, morality and politics feels like a ride through the rapids: brisk, daring, at times a bit muddy. But it confirms the emergence of a fresh and provocative voice that the theater desperately needs.
Wait: Brisk, you say? Is this the proper adjective to describe a play whose hours of operation in the Kreeger Theater are 7 to 10:40 p.m.? The surprising fact is, this 3-hour 40-minute production -- which follows the staging of Passion plays in three politically charged eras -- does not wear an audience out. The credit goes not only to Ruhl's poetically evocative prose and a cascade of scenes moving lickety-split from one to the next, but also to the ability of director Molly Smith to put Ruhl's symbolism and images to effective use, knitting a patchwork of ideas into a compelling visual fabric.
Arena deserves a heap of credit, too, for commissioning the completion of this monumental piece. "Passion Play" is the sort of challenge that the company must step up to with more frequency. The roster of American classics Arena's been offering has delivered only scattershot rewards. It's not easy being a miner of worthy new playwriting talent; the veins do not exactly yield mother lodes these days. Still, it is incumbent upon Arena to try. The embrace of Ruhl demonstrates how much vitality and interest accrue to a company that is venturing out onto dangerous new turf.
The subject Arena tackles smacks not a whit of sensationalism. The title of the piece is in a sense misleading: Though the charge of anti-Semitism is often leveled at reenactments of the persecution and execution of Christ -- with incendiary depictions of Jewish mobs cheering the Crucifixion -- Ruhl's "Passion Play" cycle only incidentally concerns the Gospels (or anti-Jewish sentiment) at all. Of central importance here are not so much the Passion plays themselves, and the fixed tenets they embody, as the more complex, morally ambiguous worlds in which the plays are performed.
The evening is divided into three distinct plays, the last of which is being seen for the first time anywhere. (The other two have been staged before, though never in so important a theater.) The dramatist says they can be performed individually, but having a chance to compare and contrast them in one sitting is a far better option.
Each part revolves around a play-within-a-play, the ritual performance of a Passion play, of the type that has been put on around the world for almost a millennium. What changes in each of Ruhl's segments is the era.
The first play is put on by townspeople in the north of England during the virulently anti-Catholic reign of Elizabeth I; the second by a renowned company in Oberammergau, Germany, in the early 1930s, as Hitler is coming to power. The third is staged in Spearfish, S.D., during and after the Vietnam War. While the 12 cast members assume different identities in each of portion of the evening, they continue in the same roles in each of the Passion plays. So, for instance, actor Howard W. Overshown portrays all three men who play Jesus. Felix Solis is always Pontius Pilate. And Kelly Brady is Jesus's mother each time out.
At the level of a mix-and-match game, "Passion Play" works wonderfully well, as traits and predicaments are reconfigured for each of the plays, and the Passion actors' relationships change to the figures they portray. (It's in the spirit of the piece that Ruhl's characters complain often about the difficulty they have remembering their lines.) No one is consistently like his biblical role, though some characteristics carry through: Brady's character, named Mary throughout, worries constantly about having her part taken away from her, particularly because of her tendencies toward un-virginal behavior.
But the evening's most important relationships are between the characters played by Solis and Overshown. (They're brothers and romantic rivals in Parts 1 and 3; lovers in Part 2.) Not insignificantly, they portray Pontius and Jesus, embodiments of bad and good, of corrupt political power and God-given moral authority. This juxtaposition infuses Ruhl's work in other ways, for the author introduces contemporary political fissures into each of her stories. Elizabeth I crashes a performance in 16th-century England; Hitler materializes at a rehearsal in Oberammergau; Richard Nixon declares that peace with honor has been achieved in Vietnam; and Ronald Reagan has a metaphysical cameo. (All are impersonated, with varying amounts of persuasiveness, by Robert Dorfman.)
You can see how many balls Ruhl is attempting to juggle. Occasionally it gets too unwieldy, especially in the South Dakota segment, in which the dramatist vents her outrage at recent (and current) wars and reaches for "Angels in America"-style grandiosity. The earlier appearances of Queen Elizabeth and Hitler are more cleanly orchestrated and add to the understanding of why we are visiting the plays in these particular epochs. Elizabeth, threatened by any ritual sanctioned by the pope, orders the closing of the Passion play; Hitler, delighted by the portrayal of Jews as Christ-killers, views it as perfect agitprop for the Third Reich. (Linda Cho's inspired costumes achieve satiric apotheosis in the depiction of Jewish priests in Teutonic horns and glittery Stars of David.)
The segment in Germany is, in fact, the best of the three. It's at once the most accessible and most poignant. With the change in historical background and the addition of lederhosen and dirndls, the meaning of the Passion is warped. This provides Ruhl with her most potent metaphor of the evening, and the sequence has an urgency the others can't quite match. Especially effective here is Polly Noonan's portrayal of a young girl of the town who's not allowed a part in the play. At first, this seems to be a continuation of a story line in the Elizabethan segment, wherein Noonan (with a tad too much affectation) plays the village idiot, an outcast whose only friend is her toy, a jack-in-the-box. Her exclusion from the Oberammergau Passion, though, takes on a more sinister cast; the evolution of her role is one from girl with jack-in-the-box to girl confined in a box.
Ruhl has a mind of literary elasticity. She treats words and ideas like toys herself. "Passion Play" hopscotches from the literal to the dreamlike on the steppingstones of metaphor. Birds and wind, angels and fish are conjured in endless variety, and Smith, in concert with a first-rate set designer, Scott Bradley, intermingles the images seamlessly. Bradley gives each of the disparate worlds of the play a starkly individual feel, and framed in a semicircular shell, each looks as if it could be contained in a snow globe. Joel Moritz adds some engaging flourishes of light, particularly in the Passion tableaux, and Andre Pluess's original music is at once subtle and well integrated.
The ensemble for the most part acquits itself well. Solis is excellent at navigating the twists in the trajectory of Pontius Pilate; Brady and Overshown are terrifically directed in a naturalistic scene in Part 3 involving a session with some marijuana. Carla Harting, Karl Miller and Leo Erickson prove exceptional assets in support.
The evening, however, is first and foremost Ruhl's coming-out party. She showed a knack in "The Clean House," performed this summer at Woolly Mammoth, for the buoyant mixing of themes light and dark. "Passion Play" reaffirms that talent. And this time, we're with her, admiringly, for the long haul.
Passion Play, a Cycle, by Sarah Ruhl. Directed by Molly Smith. Sets, Scott Bradley; costumes, Linda Cho; lighting, Joel Moritz; sound and original music, Andre Pluess. With Edward James Hyland, J. Fred Shiffman, Parker Dixon, Lawrence Redmond. Approximately 3 hours 40 minutes. Through Oct. 16 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Call 202-488-3300 or visit www.arenastage.org.