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Lauren F. Winner


Church and state in Sarah Ruhl's Passion Play.

Sarah Ruhl excels at making plays that encourage the audience to suspend incredulity and logic. They are marked by enchanting stagecraft: rooms made of string and worms carrying letters between the living and the dead in Eurydice (2006); two women engaged in dance-like hand-to-hand combat in Dead Man's Cell Phone (2007). Perhaps her most ambitious venture to date is the triptych Passion Play, first staged as a complete cycle in 2005, which ran in the fall of 2008 at Yale Repertory Theater in New Haven. Here Ruhl essays a dramatic magical realism, as giant fish go parading around the stage and the sky turns red. It is in the context of this self-conscious and captivating theatricality that Passion Play presses, among other things, questions about performance—about how performing shapes performers, and what kinds of performances are most transforming.

Each act of Passion Play depicts a community performing a passion play. The first act—in some ways the most imaginative and absorbing—is set in a village in Elizabethan England. It is based on the real tale of a village in which the stars of the annual play took on the characteristics of the figures they portrayed—the actor playing Jesus became, over the years, more Christ-like, and the actress playing his mother more Marian. In Ruhl's retelling, the actress's conformity to Mary is sheer artifice. Mary gets pregnant and, rather than confess to fornication or have an abortion, claims she was visited by God and told she would have his baby. Jesus' becoming more Christ-like is a bit more complicated. The actor playing Jesus really does try to devote himself unstintingly to helping and aiding Mary. But near the end of the act he confesses this as a sin to a priest: "I believe I liked it a little too well, playing the role of Christ."

Act II, set in Oberammergau in 1934, is darker, explicitly engaged with the anti-Jewish violence that passion plays sometimes provoked. Another Mary, daughter of the man who ...

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