Passion Play an experience of big themes and questions across the ages

Love. Family. Betrayal. Beauty. War. Sex. Community. Religion. Judgement.

In art these big themes are repeated over and over again. They’re the timeless, universal themes that we never get tired of seeing on a stage or in a painting, or listening to in music. And that’s because throughout our lives – or throughout history, if you want to look more broadly – we experience endless cycles of these themes. Love found and lost. Families formed and broken apart and formed again. Strong belief in religion which is tested through life’s trials. Wars that tear people apart or bring them together. You get the picture.

This repetitive cycle – and especially how such quintessential human experiences relate to art, community, and the state – is the central focus of Wild Side Productions‘ Passion Play at the MacEwan Centre for the Arts until December 14.

Passion Play is a saga showing the performance of a passion play during three points in time: Elizabethan England (that’s Elizabeth I, who first just tolerated Catholics and then eventually persecuted them), Nazi Germany, and South Dakota in the Reagan era during the Vietnam War. If, like me, you only have a vague idea of what a passion play is, I’ll help: it’s a theatrical interpretation of part of the life of Jesus Christ: his trial, suffering, and death. Written by Sarah Ruhl, Passion Play is presented in three parts divided according to the time period. Each of the meta-plays (the “play within the play”) has the same characters and basic plot, but the “real life” characters are different in each time period. The continuity throughout the play is that each cast member plays the same role in each passion play, and doing so provides the opportunity to observe the real-life struggles that take place across the ages. Though they’re made different by the social and political setting of each play, we see that they’re essentially the same struggle taking place time and time again.

The show is a lot to absorb, as it covers so much ground over the course of the evening. There’s the interpersonal relations between 33 different characters to take in, and of course the individual journeys each of the actors takes through the ages and how that relates to the characters they play in the passion play. One thing that’s common throughout the ages is how seriously the community’s actors take their role in the play – down to even reflecting (or trying to reflect) their character in their day-to-day lives. There’s the changes in the social and political context surrounding the play and how those factors affect the characters and the decisions they are faced with. There’s also the evolution of the play itself: from the simple and pure wish to celebrate Christ through art in the 1500s, to the town of Oberammergau’s famous once-every-ten-years play being twisted into antisemitic propaganda by Hitler, to an agent of change in metamorphosing a small town in South Dakota that puts on a community theatre passion play once a year to a destination town for the best professional production of a passion play.

The standout part of this production of Passion Play is really the acting. The cast is fabulous: Nathan Cuckow, Jesse Gervais, Amber Borotsik, Belinda Cornish, Robert Benz, Natasha Prasad, Fred Zbryski, Cody Porter, Dave Horak, Braydon Dowler-Coltman, and Kristi Hansen. It’s pretty amazing to be able to see these 11 actors on the same stage. In my years in Edmonton, I’ve seen all of these actors in various productions, but mostly small, two-hander shows. Reading the cast list was sort of like reading a recipe – you know what all the individual ingredients are, but when you start thinking about what it will be like when they’re combined, your mouth starts watering and you just want to get to experience it right away.

The cast is so in tune with one another, which enforces the idea of community that runs throughout the play. In all of the settings, the passion plays are put on by townsfolk who have likely known each other their entire lives. The way the cast interacted with each other reinforced this idea – they were totally comfortable and in their bodies during the performance. There was no sense of awkward physical or verbal interactions between the cast – that idea of if you drop something, you know the others will pick it up. Having worked together on a number of shows already, Amber Borotsik and Jesse Gervais are probably the two people it’s easiest to see this comfort in, but it really applies to everyone in the cast.

I also really enjoyed seeing Belinda Cornish in Passion Play. Typically I see Belinda as part of the Freewill Shakespeare Festival’s season (and some of that Shakespearian styling definitely came out in the portion of the play set in Elizabethan England), but her transformation across the ages was a treat to watch. From a maiden to a stoic and harsh German woman, to a god-fearing South Dakotan, Belinda’s flexibility was awesome to watch.

My only complaint was the sound design – during the show itself, it was sparse but effective, but during the begining of the play and intermissions there was nothing but a whirring sound, which to be honest I couldn’t tell if it was just atmospheric noise from the building or on purpose. When it was time for the play to begin or resume, the initial sound queue always took me off guard. If there had been sound before the play or during the intermissions, or if the sound queue had been programmed as a gradual increase in volume, it would have helped ease me into the play without that unpleasant shock of a sudden, loud sound queue.

At 3 1/2 hours, Passion Play is probably going to be an all-evening experience for you. But, because of the self-containing dramatic arcs of each act, as well as the overarching plot arc it doesn’t feel unnecessarily long or stretched out. The MacEwan Centre for the Arts doesn’t have a bar or refreshment stand for during the intermissions, so bring some snacks for the intermission and maybe a pillow for your chair and sit back and get ready to enjoy some fantastic, unusual theatre from some of Edmonton’s best actors.

Passion Play runs until December 14. Tickets are $25 – $35 from Tix on the Square.

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