Profile Theaters Passion Play, produced in collaboration with Shaking the Tree
  • David Kinder
  • Profile Theater's Passion Play, produced in collaboration with Shaking the Tree

Playwright Sarah Ruhl began writing the first two parts of her theater cycle Passion Play after reading about the Bavarian village of Oberammergau in the early 1900s, where actors who played Christ and the Virgin Mary in their annual Passion play were supposedly as holy in real life as they were on stage.

In her introduction to the play, Ruhl writes, “I started thinking, how would it shape or misshape a life to play a biblical role year after year? How are we scripted? Where is the line between authentic identity and performance? And is there, in fact, such a line?”

This past week's run of these first two parts of Passion Play are part of Profile Theater's year-long exploration of Ruhl, a playwright known for her use of poetic language and nontraditional narrative structures.

In the first part of Passion Play's cycle, we're brought to a 16th-century English village still putting on the annual Passion play after others had stopped or been forced to stop. Here questions of identity and performance are at the forefront: The actor playing Christ has an enlarged sense of self and piousness from his role, Pontius Pilate is convinced his lot in life would change if he could play Christ instead, and the Virgin Mary is trying to hide her lack of sexual innocence to keep her role. Under the surface is religion's relationship with political structures, following (with creative liberties) Queen Elizabeth taking control of the church through religious cleansing.

Ruhl writes that she finds herself “fascinated by how leaders use, mis-use and legislate religion for their own political aims, and how leaders turn themselves into theatrical icons.”

This part of her vision comes into better focus in Part Two, where we see the Passion of Christ performed three and a half centuries later in 1934 Oberammergau. No longer is the play being done subversively—instead, it's celebrated in Hitler's Germany, where the religious persecution has a different focus.

Again, it follows historical lines: the Bavarian town is actually famous for their Passion play that's been running since the middle ages, the real-life Oberammergau cast of 1934 had a similar relationship to the Nazi party, and when Hitler appears, the speech he gives is quoted from an actual speech Hitler gave in admiration of Oberammergau's famously anti-Semitic Passion play.

As might be clear, the second act intentionally gives more reason to squirm. The major players' alignment with the Nazi party, Hitler on stage, a backdrop of swastika banners—all these work in terms of shock value, but would work better if the audience knew where the line between commentary and romp was. There are moments in Part Two where the camp element felt confusing and out of place.

The play also throws a lot of balls in air. It's a play-within-a-play that not only deals with identity, performance, political figureheads, and state-religion relationships, but also mysticism, mental health, and queer sexuality. While it's to the play's advantage that it doesn't spell out what the audience should take away from it, the amount of things that could be taken away from it is overwhelming.

If you don't get bogged down, it's undeniably fun and wonderfully strange. The cast and the artfully simple design team both do an exceptional job handling the different eras and keeping the illusion of the interpersonal community theater drama alive within the larger context. And where else can you see faked immaculate conceptions, dead fish parades, a gay Jesus, and tyrannical ruler walk-ons on one stage in a single night?