Passion Play, a new production at The Odyssey Theater, is structured around three different “passion play” stagings — recreations of the biblical story of Jesus Christ’s trial and crucifixion.
Each staging takes place in a new era, and provides a new world with new characters. The three leads are performers within these passion plays, and the story provides a look into their lives offstage.
The play runs for two and a half hours across three acts, each of which present a new era and new characters. The first act delves into the theater culture of medieval England, backed by the culture of Christian morality in plays at the time. The second act presents the Nazi rise to power during 1934 and the German culture immediately prior to World War II. The final act takes place in the United States in the 1980s, in a small South Dakota town, fighting against the increased secularization of the townspeople’s world.
Written by Sarah Ruhl during her time as a graduate student at Brown University, the play promises both the epic quality of a biblical narrative and the personal quality of seeing the behind-the-scenes life of actors throughout the ages. First produced in 2005, this play provides an epic look at faith’s intimate connection with theater.
The Odyssey Theater collaborated with The Evidence Room Theater to produce Passion Play. The Evidence Room Theater is a Los Angeles-based group of actors, directors and designers who work together on various productions of their own or in collaboration with other groups and venues.
USC alum Dylan Kenin, a longtime Evidence Room actor, plays a medieval machinist, a Nazi officer, and a draft-dodger in South Dakota in this production. Despite the vast differences between his roles, Kenin believes that each serves an integral role and requires the same level of performance.
“In the diversity of characters, I’m really fleshing out the world of the play, and giving it texture, for the main characters to live their lives,” Kenin said. “I’m giving the world of the play some texture, and why [I was cast] specifically for these particular characters is that they’re pretty imposing, meant to be strong and firm in their various convictions, and that’s a thing that I’m pretty much always cast to do.”
Despite the expansive list of themes he has to work with, Kenin sees his roles as a way for the audience to grasp the story both on a simpler, person-to-person level and on a larger scale.
“I’m also one of the observers of the action, somebody that’s there that the audience wants to identify with, to be kind of meta about it,” Kenin said. “I think that as an audience member, people will be swept up in the minutia of what the lead characters are going through. What just came into my mind was Jean Valjean from Les Misérables. There’s a sweeping epic, but you kind of get caught up in the largeness of the revolution. It’s easy to not feel that personally connected to it. I feel like the largeness of this play never overshadows any given moment with how characters deal with the world they live in.”
According to director Bart DeLorenzo, the production benefits both from his casting decisions and his previous work with Ruhl. DeLorenzo previously directed Ruhl’s other play, Dead Man’s Cell Phone. He founded the Evidence Room theater company in 1995 and has been building and grooming a group of actors ever since.
“I think that Sarah Ruhl is one of those innovative writers who is writing for the future,” DeLorenzo said. “[She] started her career as a poet, and that doesn’t mean that it is written in poetic dialogue, but the way that a poem rhymes, that feeling of exuberance when you read a poem — that’s what this theater piece feels like. I think it very unusually meshes with the theater.”
But for DeLorenzo, the secret weapon of this production is The Odyssey’s theater space.
“It’s a great space,” DeLorenzo said. “It’s a very large room where this play is performed, and the dimensions are nice for this play. It feels a little bit like a church. I think that the playwright is playing with the idea that the theater itself is like a church, and the space looks a little bit like a church. So it’s a really great location for this play.”
Passion Play, put on through the Evidence Room theater company at the Odyssey Theater, opens on Jan. 25 and runs until March 16.