One might expect to see the Rhode Island premiere of a Sarah Ruhl piece at one of the state’s larger, more established venues. Her In The Next Room was a smash at 2nd Story, as was Trinity’s run of her Dead Man’s Cell Phone. However, audiences first experienced the sublime Eurydice at a high school in South Kingstown, courtesy of Contemporary Theater Company, so it is not entirely without precedent that one of our burgeoning new independents, Epic Theatre Company, would grab first shot at presenting Ruhl’s grandly ambitious but deceptively simple opus, Passion Play.
Epic Theatre works out of the Zabinski Studio in Pawtucket’s Hope Artiste Village complex, a white-walled black box that nonetheless works despite its lack of technical finesse. Regardless of their constrained space, Epic is interested in theatre writ large and, certainly, Passion Play is concerned about the largest topics – God, religion, politics, faith, love and, of course, theatre itself. How all of the former combine and become distilled into the latter gives Ruhl ample material to explore what could be three hours of sprawling platitudes but is actually a neat little triptych of encapsulated soap operas.
Each act concerns a group of well-intentioned thespians who live and breathe their local presentation of the New Testament climax, striving for the favor of the local audiences and, ultimately, of God. Seen over the course of several centuries, with appearances by Queen Elizabeth, Hitler and Reagan (all played with an understated wink and nod by Epic founder Kevin Broccoli), the three troupes share episodes of passion mirroring and informed by the Biblical struggles they seek to portray on their stages.
Charles Lafond is subtle, yet beatific as he carries the part of the actor who earnestly tries to bring Christ to life (and death). The natural backstage affairs ensue, reflecting and perverting the Jesus-Magdalene-Mother Mary triangle, taking the questions of historical Jesus’ human passions to new heights. Elizabeth Labrecque’s Mary is forever struggling with lust and reputation while Sarah Barlow (coming straight off of Epic’s essential Mr. Marmalade) shines as the world-weary Magdalene figure, always wiser than the virgin and given many of the play’s ultimate truths.
The true pivot, however, is the Pontius Pilate/Satan character who must forever live in jealously of Jesus both onstage and off. Patrick Cullen drives the entire cast, bringing a visceral ferocity to each of the three men he portrays. The playwright is careful to distinguish that the Pontius character is, in life, a fish gutter, while Lafond’s “John,” as Jesus, simply catches them. As the Biblical Jesus was a “fisher of men,” Cullen must live throughout each act with his fate as one who must destroy men even as he gazes heavenward. As the second act explores Nazi-era Germany and Jesus’ Jewish heritage is downplayed, Cullen channels Inglourious Bastards’ Christoph Waltz and tempts Jesus into a wilderness of forbidden love.
Also of note is Meghan Rose Donnelly as the choric village idiot/child who remains untainted by the blindness and prejudices around her. Donnelly’s ability to conjure wonder, pathos and simple love is the perfect counterpoint to Cullen’s powerful assault on the stage.
In the end, this is a big play on a small stage and it works wonderfully despite that limitation. Attempts at lighting cues and some of the staging elements are not fully baked enough to work well in such a basic setting. However, the production will move from Zabinski to the Contemporary Theater Co. in Wakefield for January 18 and 19, perhaps allowing this essential production to shine even brighter.
The production can be seen at Epic through December 16. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for reservations. $12-$15. Epic Theatre Company, 999 Main Street, Pawtucket.