Feeling the Passion of Sarah Ruhl

Passion Play 1
Justin Liszanckie is John, a fisherman playing Jesus in the village Passion Play in Sarah Ruhl’s aptly named Passion Play, a production of Actors Ensemble of Berkeley at the Live Oak Theater. Below: the cast of Passion Play. Photos by Anna Kaminska.

What an interesting Sarah Ruhl moment we’re having.

Ruhl’s new version of Chekhov’s Three Sisters is getting a moving and lovely production at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. And her 2005 triptych Passion Play receives its local premiere courtesy of Actors Ensemble of Berkeley, a community theater producing shows in Berkeley since 1957.

Both productions allow Ruhl to explore, in her lyrical, passionate and quirky ways, what happens to people when dreams and reality, identity and illusion are at odds.

Raised a Catholic, Ruhl, perhaps not surprisingly, has a fascination with the Passion Play, the annual pageant of betrayal and crucifixion staged during Lent. But judging from the show onstage at the Live Oak Theatre, she’s even more fascinated by theater itself.

Taking place in three acts over 3 ½ hours, Ruhl’s Passion follows the production of the Passion of the Christ in three eras: a small English Village in the late 16th century; in Oberammergau, Germany, site of the most famous Passion, in the early ‘30s; and in South Dakota from the late ‘60s into the red-white-and-blue Reagan ‘80s.

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In each act, we see the same actors playing the same Passion characters and watch how their involvement in the show affects their lives off stage.

There’s melodrama, politics, comedy and some deeply emotional revelations (especially in Act 3 when Jacob Cribbs as the actor playing Pontius Pilate has to deal with the aftermath of his time in Vietnam). Queen Elizabeth, Hitler and Ronald Reagan also show up.

Director Jon Wai-Keung Lowe finds inventive, often beautiful ways to traverse eras and locations, often utilizing shadow puppetry and small set pieces of his own design. Assisting in him in the creation of the striking stage pictures are lighting designer Alecks Rundell and graphic artists Paul Feinberg, Christine U’Ren, Daniel Thobias and Thanh Tran.

Lowe’s cast handles this tricky material with dexterity and not a minor amount of passion. This may be community theater, but don’t let the label deter you from experiencing this show. The rich performances bring the level of emotion and energy Ruhl’s script requires.


Sarah Ruhl’s Passion Play continues through May 21 at the Live Oak Theater, 1301 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $12. Visit www.aeofberkeley.org for information.

One thought on “Feeling the Passion of Sarah Ruhl

  1. I couldn’t agree more, Chad. I was very impressed with what Jon managed to do within the limitations of his budget. Nice work to all involved.

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