Monday, September 12, 2005


The Gap Between Theater-Makers and Theater-Goers

A recent discussion on the Footlights DC e-mail list about the "Passion Plays, A Cycle" currently at Arena Stage illustrated the persistent gap between those who are in the theater and those who go to the theater. (Call them theater-makers and theater-goers). Generally speaking, more religious people who attend the Passion Plays by Sarah Ruhl might be offended by the play's focus on politics, rather than religion, and by the lack of any truly religious person or prayer in the 3 1/2 hour long play.

I LOVED the play, and intend to go back and see it again. It touched on so many aspects of our life, particularly the role of theater in our lives, and how we try to make the Biblical "story" our own. But I think that religious person or people (sorry for generalizing about you) may come out of the theater ticked off because, despite the play's title, they might not be able to relate to anyone on stage. Instead, they get a few same-sex kisses, some heterosexual rolling around, and a little foul language in the last act. Now, I was not offended by these things, though I didn't think they added much to the play, and might have slowed them down. I think they were gratuitious additions to fit into the theater culture, rather than the theater-goers' culture.

This is a shame, because I think theater should reach as many people as possible. I'm not suggesting that religious people are all uptight prudes who can't stand to see sex or hear foul language. I'm saying that they might have hoped to see religious people on stage, presented perhaps in a positive light, and that this does not happen in the Passion Plays.

I wonder if there are religious people in the theater world. There must be. I think theater and religion have a great deal in common--both bring people together for a spectacle of sorts, and when it's over, you hope to go home a changed person, understanding your life, your times, and your fellow man a bit better. Ironically, that does happen with the Passion Plays--at least it did with me. A shame that sensitive religious people might have had their hopes dashed.

Both religious institutions and theaters attempt to reach out to the outcasts. Theater does this better than most organized religions, I think. That's why I hope that theater-making people occasionally might wish to reach out to religious theater-going people in the audience. Not just when the show is "Ahmahl and the Night Visitors," but during a show dealing with the Passion Plays.

At any rate, I'm sorry that some religious people will stay away, but I understand if they do. Secularly yours, Wendy

Monday, September 05, 2005


Passion Play: Two Magnificent Acts, Then A Tough Third

I had no intention of going to see "Passion Play, A Cycle" by Sarah Ruhl at Arena Stage. I barely survived Mel Gibson's movie, and I did not even see it. Futhermore, I was the only person in Washington, D.C. who did not care for "The Clean House," also by Ruhl, which played to rave reviews at Woolly Mammoth recently. But a friend called with two magic words--"free ticket"--and I thought, well, I could find the time. I grew up at Arena Stage and want to sustain some kind of connection with that theater, replaced in my affections by the Studio, the Folger and the Shakespeare Theater. And did I mention I got a free ticket to Sunday evening's performance?

Before a show I take my mental temperature and mood measurements and try to adjust them to at least neutral before the show starts. (I don't do this before movies, but feel it's only fair to a play--there's more at stake, particularly for a new work). I was tired and not looking forward to a 3 1/2 hour show about the last hours of Jesus Christ. Please, let it not be violent and may the Jewish parts be not too painful to watch. I was a little annoyed that there are no decent places to eat around Arena Stage before the show (not Arena's fault) and the concession stand was late opening and when it finally did, I paid $2.50 for a small cup of coffee in a cup that burns your fingers (no cup handles. One must suffer for good theater.) This was going to be a tough evening. Must steel myself, and if it's lousy, there would be no need to return to Arena for at least 6 months. Mood brightened a bit by nifty new scanners that the ushers used, as well as the pictures of the planned renovation. I always feel uplifted when I enter the Kreeger, perhaps a connection to my younger self. I remember seeing, "Six Characters in Search of an Author," with Richard Bauer, on this stage, and some guy with a banjo, and was that Robert Prosky in the audience? It was.

Arena's program was filled with fascinating insights into the Passion Play, which of course was intended to inspire faith as well as to do all the things that theater normally does--take us away from our daily drudgery and transport us elsewhere, while giving us insights into our daily lives. I felt my mind shift gears as the program explained how the playwright began writing the play after reading how the actors portraying Jesus and Mary in Oberammergau in the early 1900s were identified with their characters by the townspeople. It reminded me a bit of Passover, when we are commanded to consider ourselves as if we personally had been delivered from slavery in Egypt. In the Christian tradition, they also become the characters, except some are assigned the role of Pontius Pilate, some are Roman soliders or members of the Jewish crowd.
"This is your story," the Passion Play (like the Haggadah) says. "Now, what kind of Jesus (or Mary or King Herod) will you be?"

And then the play began, beginning in 1575 in England, as members of a fishing village prepare to perform the play in an era when Queen Elizabeth, who had been excommunicated by the Pope, was shutting down the Passion Plays. So immediately you sense the strength of people's faith, and how it was tested in many ways just by performing the play. Like many Jews (or perhaps Christians), my first encounters with the symbols of Christianity were through the paintings of the Byzantine and Renaissance periods, so when the actors donned their green and blue robes, I felt my heart rise--I know this story! I know these beautiful ancient poses, the sorrow and the beauty. The lives of those in the fishing village were quite vivid--fish, of course, are an ancient symbol for Christ--and the dilemma of a pregnant Virgin Mary was quite poignant. The sacrifices she had to make resonated so deeply, given the mood of fear in the village, when following one's instincts and loves were not allowed. My favorite character was the Village Idiot, wonderfully played by Polly Noonan, who like the finest fools, speaks the truth when it is uncomfortable to do so. Noonan was also my favorite character in the second act. The third and final act did not give her as much to do--one reason, perhaps, why the third act was weaker than the first two.

The second act was superb. The characters of Jesus, Mary, Mary Magdalene and Pontius Pilate carried forward from the first, providing continuity to 1930 Germany. Different scenes from the Passion were rehearsed, with a Jesus who was attracted to the Nazi party because it promised peace and a sense of family and belonging. The anti-Semitic themes were examined, but one of the most powerful aspects of the act was the recital, by Polly Noonan's idiot, of the Hansel and Gretel story. "Don't trust breadcrumbs if you are being chased through the forest," she said, as the actors struggled to remember their lines. She went on to talk about hansel & gretel being caged before being shoved into an oven. All the while, the play continued. The actors felt a great sense of the legacy of the roles in which they were cast. Of course Oberammergau's Passion Play was born out of a sense of salvation (or was it a bargain with God?): if the village survived the Plague, they would perform the Passion Play every ten years. They did survive, and the play was performed, though many more modern plagues awaited.

The final act takes place in modern day South Dakota, and was the least successful, though still quite powerful as it explored the meaning of the theater, the play, the religions and relationships among the characters. At one point, Mary turns to Magdalene and asks about an abortion. "It is worse than murder," says the Magdalene. "If I had one, would you forgive me?" "Of course I would," answers the Magdalene. And she goes back to her job at the toll booth--a light in the darkness. But the act goes on and on, following Pontius Pilate on his Christ-like wanderings (poor Jesus doesn't have much to do either in this act, though the theme of betrayal could be explored) and much could have been trimmed. We end with beautiful but confusing symbols of ships--bridges between worlds, between people, between the Old World and New?--flooding the stage. I didn't understand it, but didn't care. It was a wonderful evening of unforgettable theater.

The least successful element for me was the injection of overt politicians into the play: Elizabeth I understand, but Hitler and Reagan overstayed their welcome. Still, the playwright was commissioned to write about the intersection of politics and theater, and so perhaps felt forced to inject these people, who were well-versed in communication and acting, into the show.

I must go back and see the play again. I am sure there is much that I missed, and much that I need to remember, but these are the first impressions of a play that will leave a deep imprint on me. I thank Sarah Ruhl, all the actors, and Arena Stage, for redeeming the Passion Plays for this American.

Thursday, September 01, 2005


The Disputation: A Thoughtful, Discomforting Evening

Last night I went to see "The Disputation" at Theater J, starring the great Theodore Bikel. As the title suggests, the play is a long, thoughtful argument, raising uncomfortable issues about faith, belief, disbelief, tolerance and respect. The last scene, by which time I was wrung out, hints at reconciliation between Christians and Jews. I did enjoy the show, and recommend it to those who want 2.5 hours of religious discussion (and who doesn't? There's a 15 minute intermission for us restless heathens.)

The well-paced play is based on a historical event--the arguments between Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, called Nachmonides, and a Jewish-born convert to Christianity, in the court of James of Aragon. The Pope has ordered James to convert the Jews, or at least to stop giving shelter to those Jews fleeing France. Actually, James is the most appealing character on stage. He just wants to hear a good argument, confident that he will go on philandering as before, but believing, as a desperate Christian, that he will be forgiven before he dies, and escape hell. He was the most human and believable person in the play. His wife was a close second.

Some people thought that the play was old--it's not, it's a recent work. Some people thought Bikel had died. No, he's old, actually much older than the play, but still has a strong stage presence. He must be younger than his character, or how could he do live drama through October 2, and perform twice on Sundays? I was so pleased to be able to see him on stage--he apparently wanted to perform at Theater J, and contacted Ari Roth, the artistic director. That's a real tribute to Ari and those at the Theater.

As to the play itself, the subject matter was tough for me. I've never been able to understand anyone else's religion, and sometimes not much of my own, and am more interested in how religious beliefs motivate us to help the poor, the sick, the needy, or to seek peace and pursue it, than to argue about who's "right" and who's "wrong." But 'way back when, right and wrong were very important. The arguments in the play centered around whether or not the messiah has come, and whether or not the messiah is/was/will be divine. As a lawyer, I enjoyed the arguments, and "my guy" Bikel seemed to have the better of them, even though the Christian intimidated him into silence at one point. (Power speaks volumes.) Speaking truth to power is commended in the Bible, but keeping silent does a lot more to create peace on earth. After a while I started to think that all of these arguments must upset God a bit, or bore him, and I hoped for a Woody Allen moment, when God would descend and say, "You're both wrong. Here's what's really happening."
I was glad when the play came to a close, with a touch of reconciliation between the two adversaries.

The "after plays" should be wonderful, as long as they are well moderated and people are respectful. (There should be rules and umpires, like a sports match, during religious or theatrical discussions. They had them during The Disputation. We should have them for Peace Cafes). Discussions are scheduled for the next four Sundays, at about 5:00 PM after the Sunday matinees.

PAY-WHAT-YOU-CAN-PREVIEWS are September 1 & 6 at 7:30 pm
There are SPECIAL $25 WEEKEND PREVIEW PRICE: Sept 3 at 8 pm, Sept 4 at 3:00 pm & 7:30 pm.

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