Arts & Events

Theater Review: Sarah Ruhl Twice Over: Passion Play at Actors Ensemble, Three Sisters at The Rep

By Ken Bullock
Wednesday May 11, 2011 - 08:37:00 AM

"The martyr-drama was born from the death of Socrates as a parody of tragedy ... [and] at the end of The Symposium, ... the dialogue contains pure dramatic language, unfragmented by its dialectic of tragic and comic. This purely dramatic quality restores the mystery which had gradually become secularized in the forms of Greek drama."

Walter Benjamin, in his book on Baroque tragic drama, pinpoints the remote origins of the medieval Passion, Morality and Mystery plays--the beginnings of our theater, as they played on until the Restoration or later, influencing Shakespeare and the other great playwrights of England and Europe in the Renaissance and Baroque periods--in the dialogues of Plato, who reportedly burnt his tetralogy of tragedies and began the trend towards dialogue that could embrace both the comic and tragic, which classical theater kept absolutely apart. 

Medieval plays are still very playable today, though usually just staged at Christmas or for academic purposes. Manoel de Oliveira, the great centenarian Portuguese filmmaker--still cranking them out at 102--made an innovative and absorbing film of an ongoing Passion Play in his homeland, Acto do Primavera ('Rite of Spring') in the 60s. The Second Shepherd's Play can be seen as predecessor to Waiting for Godot; the Cornish Ordinalia ends its play on the Resurrection with an almost slapstick burlesque, as Pontius Pilate's body is rejected for burial by the earth, spat out by the water of a river, and finally spirited offstage to Hell by a troupe of grinning devils, sticking their tongues out at the audience. 

Sarah Ruhl's (Eurydice; The Vibrator Play) three part Passion Play, which is running at Actors Ensemble of Berkeley in Live Oak Theater, lets the audience sit back and grin--or grimace--as its characters, over the span of a half-millenium, act out the pun Ruhl finds in the title, playing three ill-fated love affairs during stagings of Christ's Passion in late 16th-century England, early Nazi Germany and the Vietnam-era American Heartland. To add to the fun, the triangle's between (or among) the actors playing Jesus, Mary and Pilate--and there's a visit by contemporary heads of state: Elizabeth I, Hitler and our own Ronnie Reagan (all played in the AE production by Lisa Wang). 

Jon Wai-keung Lowe directs, and there's a nice idea for background of a play that skips through the centuries and over the globe: a shadowplay tips in the silhouettes of scenery from behind, manipulated by the director, Paul Feinberg, Christine U'Ren and Thanh Tran, who offer their thanks in the program to Larry Reed and ShadowLight Theater, the great resident exponents of shadowplay in the Bay Area. 

Some familiar faces and some not so familiar--Scott Ayres, Jacob Cribbs, Doug Kaufinen, Justin Liszcanckie, Meryn MacDougall, Norman MacLeod, Eric Reid, Elena Ruggiero, Addie Ulrey and Ms. Wang--make up the cast, doubling and tripling in the parts, as different characters take up the same roles in different epochs. All have their moments, and some troupe on through their several changes of personae and venue. In some ways, it's a play that seems written for community theater--and that's what the Passion Plays were, to a great extent: sacred community theater. 

Jeff Hamby designed costumes; sound is by Nathan Lively and lights, Alecks Rundell. 

The passions on top of the Passion stir up various problems through the ages: unwanted pregnancy, secret homo-eroticism, rivalry between brothers ... Most interesting, though still fraught with some of the kitsch that often dogs even the best ideas Ruhl has, is the return of the Vietnam vet, sleeping outside his home, hoping to reclaim his part as Pilate in his hometown pageant in the Dakotas. Jangling the various soap operas are Wang's recurrent appearances as Queen, Fuhrer and President ... 

Hitler, in fact, did visit Oberammergau's (still-ongoing) Passion Play on its 300th anniversary in 1934, but I doubt Elizabeth would've gone--her father, Henry VIII, with his break from Rome, downplayed religious theater, which was widely censored, in favor of the new secular theater which flourished during his daughter's reign. Ronnie ... well, any port in a storm where he could harbor his regatta and run up the flag ... (I remember the stern look on Bill Walsh's face when Reagan segued from congratulating the 49ers on their Super Bowl victory to dragooning them to accompany him to the Hill, in 1985.) 

Fridays and Saturdays at 7, Sundays at 2, through May 21. 1301 Shattuck (at Berryman). $12-$15. 649-5999; 

"That tree is dead, but it's still moving with the others in the wind." 

Among the great ensemble plays, Chekhov's Three Sisters, which has been translated and/or adapted countless times, is playing now at Berkeley Rep, directed by Les Waters, in a version by Sarah Ruhl, whose Passion Play is at Actors Ensemble of Berkeley. 

There's the famous trio of sisters, bereft of their military father, but still hosting visitors from the provincial garrison. The sisters, born in Moscow, punctuate much of what they reminisce or argue about, aver or predict with sighs of longing for and determination to return to the capital. 

Of Chekhov's four great plays, it's the one which covers the greatest swath of time, showing most vividly, in his inimitable fashion, the effect of it passing by in the most ordinary moments, interrupted by momentous occasions, disasters ... 

The various pieces of the play seem more or less modular, fitting and working together, but sometimes having an independent or slightly dissociated, sometimes strangely alienated, existence and relation to the other parts. (An example would be the reaction of the officers, who've been hangers-on at the sisters' home, when transferred away from the town ... their expression of sadness, leaving what seems to them a blessed time; the same period to the sisters has been wretched, a form of exile, like imprisonment.) 

Chekhov often expressed his impatience with Stanislavsky, believing the director--who also initiated the central role of Vershinin, the incoming officer who knew the sisters' father and falls into an affair with Masha, the middle one--trivialized the play, trying too hard to make it a sentimentalized psychological drama of a milieu, rather than as a new kind of comedy of manners, as he intended it to be played. 

Productions of Chekhov's plays nowadays announce they've rediscovered this, and add humor onto the superstructure like a slapdash paint job. (The same thing happens with productions of plays by Samuel Beckett, whose theater has similar roots as Chekhov's.) 

Unfortunately, the Rep production is no different, substituting sitcom-type punchlines for Chekhov's undertow of humor. Ruhl, as in her own plays, concocts awkward moments when things almost stop for an instant, something archly funny is said, the audience titters--and the play plods on.. 

Such moments are usually those when the line announces a change of perspective in Chekhov's suddenly changing, modular-style method of development. He changed the stage comedy from the inside-out, hollowing out the form but keeping the outer look of it intact, somehow, almost dispensing with the "arc," the rise and fall of the plot of the conventional stage play of the time (sometimes it reappears within scenes)--it's still the basic structure of most Hollywood movies--and substitutes circular patterns, entropic movements, ironies of repetition, echoes of what's been and still to be said ... 

V. S. Meyerhold, the great Russian director--who, as one of Stanislavsky's actors, initiated several roles in Chekhov plays, and became close to the playwright--mentions in his writings that Chekhov's poetry existed in the rhythm of the lines, a subtle and shifting place, certainly, especially in translation. (Paul Schmidt's translations seem to capture something of this, at least in performance, if not always on the page.) He also illustrated something profound and fleeting in Chekhov's technique: citing the dance at the party in Chekhov's last play, The Cherry Orchard, when the lady of the house dances with an old--and dying--family retainer, who's dressed in costume as the Grim Reaper, Meyerhold comments, "For a moment he is, in fact, Death ... but just for a moment." 

Chekhov's plays and short stories, which were immensely popular and influential throughout the world from shortly after their early 20th century emergence, also were criticized--and praised!--for being formless, or improvised. Chekhov may have profited from the Romantic cult of improvisation in the arts, which certainly dated back to Lord Byron's Don Juan, which influenced Pushkin. (And Stanislavsky created his own methods and cult of improv.) 

But Chekhov was no improviser, just as he wasn't a commercial playwright--at least after his youthful run of one act comic "vaudevilles." And those vaudevilles may have determined the unusual form of tableaux and vignettes--the action-without-action, without moving forward--of those semi-modular parts of his great later plays. Meyerhold was probably influenced by this, as he was by popular stage entertainments, when he came up with his basic unit of play production, the actors performing an "attraction," like in the sideshow of a carnival, like a burlesque routine. 

Ruhl--and the director--seems innocent of these points. Her strong suit among her admirers seems to be her formlessness, the ongoing whimsicality of the playwright, going from one notion to another, rather than even what was thought to be the kind of free-fall of Chekhov's characters through life and their own pondering of it. 

But Ruhl's "version" of Chekhov merely carries the decay of public perception of his dramaturgy another step, assisting in the canonization of the somewhat dreary--morbid, even--plays of remorse, resentment, memory and hope they've become on most American stages. Under these circumstances, the actors--as individual performers and as the crucial ensemble--are strait-jacketed, without much chance to do more than perhaps glitter uselessly at any given moment. 

One of the finest actors in the Bay Area, James Carpenter, stands out, but in a role where he can't really even serve as a counterbalance or point of comparison. One critic mentioned that he should've been cast as Vershenin. Had that been possible, maybe he could've shown what he did a few years ago in an otherwise mistaken production of Uncle Vanya at CalShakes--a credible Chekhov character in a crowd of actors forced to blither and walk in circles. 

Tuesday through Sunday at various times at the Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison, near Shattuck. $14.50-$73. 647-2949;