When you throw epic storytelling, religion, politics, and art into the mix as your starting point, comparisons to Kushner are inevitable, I suppose. Brecht is the missing link.* The thing that'll probably make Ruhl's name is her dexterity with such issues coupled with the ability to resist (transcend?) Brechtian tactics along the way. I think we take it for granted that any play that's remotely self-aware or now-centered must be either emulating Brecht or betraying him. I don't think that's fair to Brecht, for one (the dude himself took some time to evolve into the coffeehouse reference he is today**). Second, it may be a sign that he's rightfully dominated our sense of what theatre can accomplish politically (a feat unmatched since Ibsen), but as we revise the esoteric/economic/aesthetic issues (monsterism v. minimalism) we should also revise the social/utilitarian issues (Brecht&Kushner v. anyone willing to step up to the plate). This is not meant as a critique of Brecht or Kushner; merely a call to evaluate theatre, even political theatre, in different terms.
I liked Sarah Ruhl's The Clean House because it worked the odd double-magic of indulging Albee-esque themes and characters while "getting over" them by the end.*** The best legitimate criticism I heard for that play was from one of you splendid posters out there. Does The Clean House merely tap that condescending Noble Savage/Mystic Other story in a new, clever, sweet-smelling way? I wondered the same thing with Guare's Six Degrees of Separation where the ostensibly rich Manhattenite audience was encouraged to resist the anecdotalization of struggling poor black people. As a challenge to middle-class social awareness, Guare's play is pretty weak. As a lovely metaphor for the sublime interconnectedness of human relationships, it's beautiful. To a fault. But The Clean House is more concerned with breaking down the commodification/pathologizing of passion than breaking down walls in race/class relations.
With Passion Play, the stakes are higher. And instead of mining the history of Jesus-induced art for its political import, Sarah's decided to go one better and offer a new, trans-rational substitute for the whole mess. She's more interested in the earth, wind, fire, and water of the story. Literally. If you've seen the show or read the reviews, you know that much is made of shifting earth, redemptive wind, red skies, flowing water and fish. And I guess when you're playing with such raw ingredients, it's easy to see metaphoric significance in every last detail.
This kind of super-saturated imagery can be self-defeating after a while -- it's hard to tell if there's a specific, crystalizing theme or call-to-action underneath all the lovely stage poetry. When Pontius says in his final speech that he doesn't "know if [America] needs more religion or less of it," it's kind of a letdown for me. This playwright had the courage and imagaination to forgo the typical Jesus-Judas/Jesus-Mary/Jesus-Jew/Jesus-Christians axis for a long examination of the Jesus contra Pontius relationship. Since that relationship is decidedly political, I think many people want a tangible (if not definitive) political message by the end. Of all the questions raised, "Does this country need more religion or less of it?" should be pretty easy to answer. Instead, we get a final image that's more of a meditation than a mandate.
Which is great. It doesn't devalue the political discussion Ruhl raises. It just means that her concerns are less "horizontal" and earth-bound than we'd expect for a play that discusses Jesus, Reagan, history, Hitler, homosexuality and Vietnam, among other things. The first act lays the groundwork for this odd hyper-elliptical superstructure. In Elizabethan England, political and religious identity are insperable and Ruhl doesn't try to pry them apart for analysis yet. Instead, we're invited to accept this fusion as it stands. Unchallenged. The red sky IS the power/wrath/wisdom of God for all intents and purposes. We needn't dissect the midieval imagery any more than the band of English villagers would because truly empathizing with them requires an abandonment of our privileged secular-atheist hindsight. Even the Village Idiot (read: voice of reason) isn't an enlightened time-traveler. She's a product of her time just like Elizabeth was. It's only after we accept their reality that we're free to critique it, change it, pick it apart.
I like that approach a hell of a lot better than more cleverly-telescoped portraits of recent history like The Heidi Chronicles in which Wasserstein's title protagonist is simply ahead of her time. Watching Heidi find her way to the progressive 90s sexual politics with which we're so comfortable and proud is like watching Mystery Science Theatre 3000 -- we get to scoff at those bumbling retro morons! "That's what they call a lazer beam?! Ha ha!" "That's what they call a modern woman?! Ha ha!" With all due respect, Vogel's Minneola Twins works the same self-congratualtory slight-of-mind: the 20th-century American woman is reduced to one of two frantic, conflicted Types. Housewife or bra-burner. Conservative or liberal. Virgin or whore. Big Breasts or Flat Chest. Forrest or Jenny. You name it. Amping them up and swirling them around for two hours doesn't transcend them.
So Hegel junkies will love Passion Playbecause it works in units of three instead of two? Well, yeah, kind of. Maybe it's transcendent to a fault. Lord knows there's a dialectic looming behind every character -- if only because of their play-to-play arc (their Arc of Incarnation) instead of their internal, dramatic arc. I'm sure it'll be easy to belt out a few hundred undergrad essays because of this ample smorgasboard of one-two-three theses. As near as I can tell, God herself is the bass tone of the whole composition. The actors are the treble and the leaders (Elizabeth, Hitler, Nixon, and Reagan) chime in on tenor. These elements don't always harmonize well; Trey's City Paper review articulates this weakness better than I can. So what results is more of a tone poem than a grand opera. But Ruhl never betrays the terms she sets at the beginning and in my book that makes Passion Play more engaging and useful than a lot of other political plays out there.
Maybe this is just a roundabout way for me to shield the play from criticism I'd ordinarily throw its way. I can't be completely objective about it because I'm still in the middle of it. Honestly, I'm more queasy about the play's discussion of war than its discussion of politics. But that's an ongoing issue with me. Art about war makes me nervous, period. From "Guernica" to Saving Private Ryan, I still don't think we get it as artists. Even at its most effective, art about war comes across as either unwitting recruitment material or evasive thanatophilic fortune-cookie sentiment for me. When frat boys quote the drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket with glee or virgin film students emulate the neo-Wellesian lap dissolves from Apocalypse Now ... I get the uneasy feeling we're more interested in war for its ripe catalog of beautiful/silly images than for its immediate, physical consequences. Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader explains this very well w/r/t film (see Ryan link above and sidebar link).
And so with Passion Play, I'm hungry for an answer to Pontius by the end. By Act III, he's a delusional Vietnam vet stalking the streets with nothing but the voice of the playwright to keep him warm at night. He has a handful of great speeches at the end, but there's a lesson he's missing -- one that would not only resurrect the Mary and Jesus characters to their rightful prominence in the composition, but would maybe give the Pontius character something of an actual dramatic conflict to resolve before his lovely apotheosis at the end. If you haven't seen the play, don't read any further; I'd like to hear what y'all think on your own terms. But here goes ...
In all his incarnations, the Pontius character talks a lot about responsibility and sacrifice. But it's unclear what he learns about the subject when he's not telling everyone else what they should be learning. I think the counterpoint should come from Mary when the drunk drifter comes at her door demanding a shower and toothbrush in exchange for his wartime service. Put simple: it's no longer a sacrifice when you keep demanding reparation for it. It's no longer responsibility when you keep blaming others for your lot in life. Pontius can't be an inspiring figure for us if he's still a victim by the end -- a man whose hands are tied, not washed. Moreover, Pontius can't have any kind of moral authority (as a character OR as an example for an ideal leader) when he rejects the very people who DO honor his sacrifice and then shouts them down as reflecting surfaces for another diatribe about the nature of democracy and war. When he finishes, we get this button:
MARY: I'm sorry for the bad things that have happened to you.
PONTINUS: I don't want your pity.
MARY: Then what DO you want?!
PONTIUS: A shower.
No. Not really. I always wanted Mary to tear him a new one in that scene. Or failing that, maybe the poor woman could just let loose about the hell she's been through to give the character/scene/play/night some worthy conflict ... even if it's just necessary coverage before P's final conclusion takes shape. To be sure, some of this will fix itself in future productions, drafts, casting choices, etc. But for now, I still love this monster.
*Seriously! Have you seen pictures of him?
Sorry. Inner frat boy crept out for a moment.
**My super-erudite friend Nicole Preszler and I agreed long ago that you know you've achieved classic status when you no longer qualify for the school of thought that's named after you. It's why Titus Andronicus can be dismissed as "pre-Shakespeare" and The Cryptogram can be celebrated as "post-Mamet." They're both regarded as lesser plays. Mostly because they fail to accurately foretell or fulfill the lofty signature of the author. Ditto with Brecht and Kushner.
***more to the point: she dared to WRITE a theme in the first place (!), instead of leaving the characters (and the audience) to wallow in pre-rational misery the way Albee most likely would have with the same story.