• Shaking the Tree

It was surprising to see open seats at Saturday's performance of Sarah Ruhl's Passion Play, Part III at Shaking the Tree. A rare production of one of the most ambitious works by a well-respected, living American playwright put on in an intimate venue and it's not a full house?

Admittedly, the third part of a difficult-to-sum-up three-part play-within-a-play doesn't sound very inviting. But regardless of whether you caught the first two parts at Profile Theatre last month, or are planning on going to see the added performances of those installments (today and Sunday), Part III stands on its own. And Shaking the Tree's tucked-away warehouse space is the perfect space to see it—its cozy intimacy lends itself well to the community-theater setting of Passion Play.

For this round, we're placed in Spearfish, South Dakota for the town's long-running production of The Passion of Christ. Covering the lives of the cast members and the evolution of the production from 1969 to 1984, we see the characters' lives entwine with the characters they play while looking at what this entwining means in 20th-century middle America.

For Part III, the spotlight falls more fully on actor Garland Lyons, as he plays a Vietnam vet looking to reclaim his family and his former role as Pontius Pilate, and in it he shines. Taking on the trope of the PTSD vet is not an—or enviable—feat, but it's handled confidently and respectfully throughout, and Lyons' range as an actor is impressive.

Diane Kondrat is glorious as Ronald Reagan, and Reagan as a character ties many of the play's themes (the lines between reality and performance, the mixing of religion and politics, hero worship, mental health) in exciting and surprising ways.

The ways the play falls short are minor. Like the play's other installments, Part III tries to tackle an overwhelming array of issues and its inclusion of the tyrannical rulers from the play's first two parts feels unnecessary and awkward. The only shortcoming not inherent to any production is the unfocused and distracting musical direction—the ubiquity of its song choices feels out-of-sync with how adventurous the rest of the play is (plus Bob Dylan will forever be too loaded to make for easy transition music).

But in most ways the play astounds. It's thought-provoking, well acted, and doesn't hand out easy answers. But what it does best is get weird. Whether through the slow motion that accompanies shocking moments, unstable delusions of grandeur, or the script's insistent breaking of the fourth wall, the production is at its most confident when momentarily setting the plot to the side. The moments are so staggering in their beauty that they become a welcoming, rather than excluding, type of weird. It's in these moments that anyone coming from outside theater culture will see both the amount of work involved in even a relatively small production, and the amount of latent possibilities within the art form.