The Internet Theater Magazine of Reviews, Features, Annotated Listings

A CurtainUp Review
Passion Play: A Cycle in Three Parts

With Sarah's work, you think you know where she might be heading but there are so many delightful twists and turns, you're constantly surprised. —Mark Wing-Davey, director
Passion Play
Brian Sgambati (Pontius the Fish Gutter) and Kristen Bush (Mary 1)
The specific "Passion" in Sarah Ruhl's three-act triptych is of course a presentation of the last days of Jesus Christ, as enacted in three local pageants across four centuries. Showing how life mocks art, the same character types revert to kind—-a village idiot, an unfaithful girl playing Mary, closeted lesbian lovers in England and male ones in Germany, and bombastic authority figures (respectively, Queen Elizabeth, Hitler and Reagan). The contrast between their sacred roles and real lives is exploited for dramatic effect. (For instance, traumatized by war, the 1969 Pontius Pilate refuses to wash his hands of the blood of an innocent victim.)

Parallel situations or events (preparation for war, rehearsal chaos, a procession of larger-than-life fishes, a scary red sky) bedevil these troubled Passions. They're played out in a British hamlet in 1575 (where Passion plays are feared as dangerous holdovers from the former Catholic faith), Oberammergau, Germany circa 1934 (where the play's anti-Semitism perfectly complements Nazi propaganda), and Spearfish, South Dakota between 1969 and 1984 (where backstage shenanigans almost erupt in a "crime of passion" play).

Ruhl (whose Clean House also liked to stir things up) tackles many truths here—the unholy marriage of politics and religion, the disconnect between mortals' make-believe and their real motivations, and the self-fulfilling power of a play to alter everyone connected with it. But the overlong, cluttered and scattershot plot, directionless dialogue, quixotic symbol-mongering, kneejerk magic realism, self-indulgent side scenes, and aimless, lazy apostrophes to the audience take a cumulative toll.

The third act self-destructs as it lurches off in a dozen inconclusive directions. Worst of all, we never get a sense of what the Passion play really means to its participants, the benchmark from which we can measure their assorted departures from the dream. Instead we get a toxic fusion of the condescension of Waiting for Guffman with the calculated irreverence of Springtime for Hitler, always minus the fun.

Actor/teacher Mark Wing-Davey knows his way through the dramatic labyrinths of this sprawling and unfocused trilogy but not so well that an audience can't go missing in (the) action. How does Hitler's anti-Semitism fit Queen Elizabeth's anti-Papist rant, then fit Ronald Reagan's genial know-nothingism? It's safer to dwell on such acting epiphanies as Joaquin Torres' questing Jesus, Kristen Bush's very merry Mary, Polly Noonan's "fool of God" village idiot, and T. Ryder Smith's tour de force as the play-acting political icons of their era. These performances, necessarily rich diversions from a squandered script, get us through the 220 minutes without suspending too much disbelief. If only there were real passion in Passion Play.

Links to other reviews of Ruhl works
The Clean House (one of 3 reviews)
Orlando, adaptation of Virginia Woolf's novel
Passion Play (a more favorable take from our DC critic)

Playwright: Sarah Ruhl
Directed by Mark Wing-Davey
Cast: Joquin Torres (Jesus and other villagers), Kristen Bush (Mary 1), Brian Sgambati (Pontius the fish-gutter), T. Ryder Smith (Queen Elizabeth, Hitler and Reagan)
Sets: Allen Moyer and others
Lighting: James F. Ingalls
Costumes: Gabriel Berry
Sound: Cecil Averett
Running time: 3 hours 40 minutes with two intermissions
Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., Chicago; 312-443-3800
From September 15 to October 21, 2007; opening September 24.
Sun., Wed., Thurs. 7:30pm; Fri, Sat 8pm; Sun at 1:30pm Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer based on September 24 performance

CurtainUp's Annotated List of Chicago Theaters

Guide to links to help Chicago visitors and locals alike find what to do, where to stay and eat.

Chicago Subway Finder & Other Information

Leonard Maltin's Classic Movie Guide
Leonard Maltin's 2007 Movie Guide


©Copyright 2007, Elyse Sommer.
Information from this site may not be reproduced in print or online without specific permission from