"I STARTED THINKING, how would it shape or misshape a life to play a biblical role year after year?" Sarah Ruhl writes in the introduction to Passion Play, her trilogy of plays about religious pageants in small towns. "How are we scripted? Where is the line between authentic identity and performance? And is there, in fact, such a line?"
After reading about an annual religious play in the Bavarian village of Oberammergau in the early 1900s—in which the actors playing Christ and the Virgin Mary were supposedly as holy in real life as they were on stage—Ruhl began writing what would become Passion Play. Now the play cycle has arrived in Portland. Produced in a collaboration between Profile Theatre and Shaking the Tree Theatre, Parts I and II ran earlier this month as part of Profile's yearlong exploration of Ruhl's plays. Part III opens Friday at Shaking the Tree. (If you snoozed on Parts I and II, Shaking the Tree will also present four encore performances during Part III's run.)
In Part I of Passion Play, questions of identity and performance arose against the backdrop a 16th-century village's Easter pageant: The actor playing Christ had an enlarged sense of self and piousness derived from his role, Pontius Pilate was convinced his lot in life would change if he could play Jesus instead, and the Virgin Mary tried to hide her lack of sexual innocence to keep her role. The relationship between religion and political structures simmered below the surface. Ruhl writes that she found herself "fascinated by how leaders use, misuse, and legislate religion for their own political aims, and how leaders turn themselves into theatrical icons."
That part of her vision came into better focus in Part II, which goes back to Ruhl's original inspiration, the village of Oberammergau, with another Passion play, this time in 1934. The play's celebrated in Hitler's Germany, where the religious persecution has a different focus. This follows real-life history: The Bavarian town is famous for its Passion play, produced since the Middle Ages; the real-life Oberammergau cast of 1934 had a similar relationship with the Nazi Party; and when Adolf Hitler appears, the speech he gives is quoted from an actual text delivered by the tyrannical dictator in approval of Oberammergau's famously anti-Semitic Passion play. 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 have been even more effective if the audience knew where the line between commentary and romp was. There are moments in Part II where the camp element felt confusing and out of place. And while it's to the play's credit that it doesn't spell out what the audience should get from it, the amount of potential takeaways is overwhelming. It not only deals with identity, performance, political figureheads, and church-state relationships, but also mysticism, mental health, and queer sexuality.
So far, Passion Play's cast and creative team's artfully simple design have done an exceptional job handling the different eras and keeping the illusion of the interpersonal community-theater drama alive within the larger context. If you don't get bogged down, it's undeniably fun and wonderfully strange; if these first two installments are any indication, the final part in the trilogy should be too. 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?