I close my eyes and can still see the moment: A clump of bodies on stage becomes the swirl and pounding of a dangerous ocean. One fragile human is carried along the hoisted shoulders of ensemble cast members in a forward, wave-like motion that feels violent yet somehow also gently all-encompassing, as if the sea is reluctant to open its deadly embrace.
This is the magic of theater: taking us to a place in which the literal is reconfigured, where we observe a moment not just as bystanders but as co-conspirators in a carefully crafted world.
This moment near the end of the first part of director Ruth Griffin’s production of Sarah Ruhl’s “Passion Play: Part 1 & 2” at Fresno State is memorable. It’s a fascinating play, and the university offers a crisply staged and smartly directed interpretation of it.
The playwright, a MacArthur Genius Grant winner and Pulitzer Prize nominee in drama, explores the theme of the intertwining of government and religion in two very different settings: Elizabethan England and Nazi Germany. (There’s a third installment to the play, set in the Vietnam War, that Fresno State chose not to perform.) In both eras, the driving action is a small town preparing for its annual production of the Passion of the Christ, the ritualistic pageant depicting the last week of the life of Jesus.
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There’s a lot going on behind the scenes of the Passion productions as we dive into what is essentially a backstage soap opera among the various characters, including romance, intrigue, menace and a fair amount of light-hearted frivolity. (Is it a sin to ogle the young, handsome Christ on the cross, as the woman playing his mother does, during rehearsal? Only God knows.) You get the feeling that for the townspeople in both eras, being a part of this production is a highlight in their otherwise unremarkable lives.
In Part 1, for example, the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalen want to switch roles. The disfigured fishmonger playing Pontius Pilate is jealous of his better liked cousin, who’s playing Jesus. Lust, shame and greed all have their merry way. It’s set against a more serious backdrop, to be sure: The town shelters a renegade priest in a time when the newly founded Church of England is purging Catholics.
In Part 2, set in 1934 in a small Bavarian town known for its Passion production, we likewise drill into the backstage intrigue, but with a slightly less jovial edge, as the menace of Nazism lets itself be known.
Griffin embraces the play’s Magical Realism with perceptive choreography and stylized movements that never seem superfluous or ostentatious. Liz Waldman’s sound design is perceptive and handsome, adding significantly to the visual effect. (When the script calls for the sky to turn red, as it does often, you can’t deny that request.) Indeed, the entire production is finely crafted. From a beautiful prologue depicting the Virgin Birth, in which the ensemble links hands and raises and lowers them in a gentle weaving motion, to characters mirroring each other’s hand gestures, there’s a grace and elegance to the entire endeavor.
Student designer Raymond Martinez’s sturdy, multi-level wooden set focuses our attention on the life-size crucifix we see in both versions of the Passion. I like the mood it casts: Augmented by arches that look like twisted vines, with elements cross-hatched in a style that suggests medieval-style cheval de frise fortifications, it offers a hint of the ominous. Elizabeth Payne’s color palette and costumes feel fresh and subtle in the first part and more period-substantial without being heavy-handed in the second. (And her gown for Queen Elizabeth I, who makes a cameo, is a stunning example of the excesses of power.)
The cast is quite strong. Reshma Meister, as the queen and later as Adolf Hitler, is a fireball of government authority, delivering not one but two searing monologues. Justin Ray and Ian Jones, who swap roles as Christ from one act to the next, are standouts. (Jones is particularly good in the second act.) Jana Price and Rachel Martinez (as “double Marys”), and Alexis Mera and Thuy Duong (as alternate “village idiots”) all have emphatic moments of clarity and resonance.
All this said, I’m a little less sold on the play itself, particularly the Germany setting of Part 2, which can feel a little overwrought and predictable. (The choice of music, including a heavy dose of Wagner and particularly snippets of a far too overused “Carmina Burana,” which has sadly been demeaned by too many car commercials and movie trailers, doesn’t help; and J.C. Bardzil’s otherwise brisk sound design lays things on a little thick at the conclusion as well, with one obvious train whistle too many.) Perhaps I needed the third installment to break through in terms of what Ruhl was trying to accomplish.
But then I think back to that stunning moment when the cast is transformed into the ocean, and I’m won over. Sometimes theater is all about surrendering to the director’s “Passion.”
Passion Play: Part 1 & 2
- Through Dec. 10
- Wright Theatre, Fresno State
- 559-278-2216, www.fresnostate.edu/artshum/theatrearts/
- $17, $10 students