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Sarah Ruhl's 'Passion Play,' explores theater through 400 years of history


The performance runs March 31 – April 3 at Muhlenberg College Theatre.


Wed, 30 Mar 2016 16:16:00 EDT

For more than a millennium, the Bible has been the source of some of the richest veins of theatrical history — a tradition that playwright Sarah Ruhl explores in depth in her 2008 drama "Passion Play." The play opens March 31 at Muhlenberg College.

"It's a play about the power of theatricality," says Muhlenberg theater professor Beth Schachter, who directs the production. "It's an opportunity to enjoy the ways in which the theatre process can be both funny and an expression of faith — of all sorts — within larger themes of love and forgiveness."

"Passion Play" plays March 31 through April 3 in the college's Baker Theatre. Tickets and information are available at muhlenberg.edu/theatre and at 484-664-3333.

Hailed by New Yorker magazine theater critic John Lahr as "extraordinary," "bold," and "inventive," "Passion Play" takes us behind the scenes of three communities attempting to stage the death and resurrection of Christ. From Queen Elizabeth's England to Hitler's Germany to Reagan's America, Ruhl's exploration of devotion takes a humorous yet unsettling journey filled with lust, whimsy, and a lot of fish.

Ruhl dramatizes a community of players rehearsing their annual staging of the Easter Passion in three different eras: 1575 northern England, just before Queen Elizabeth outlaws the ritual; 1934 Oberammergau, Bavaria, as Hitler is rising to power; and Spearfish, South Dakota, from the late 1960s through Reagan's presidency. In each era, the players grapple in different ways with the transformative nature of art — and politics are never far in the background.

The production itself is a work of fiction, and not a passion play — but the audience does see segments of the passion story performed in each of the three historical eras, and Schachter says the play approaches the story of the passion with "a certain reverence, as a story that holds a sublime significance for many of the characters."

Schachter says that, for her, the play's most interesting question has to do with the role of the individual in determining the course of history — "the responsibility of everyday people." In 1930s Germany, for example, we see the choices of individuals shaping Hitler's rise to power, as his fascist ideology creeps up through the population.

"People look for a leader who reassures them and tells them everything is going to be all right," she says. "And those choices have palpable consequences — consequences that I think are worth examining in the present moment in our own history."

The production features scenic design by Stephan Moravski, costume design by Liene Dobraja, and lighting design by Gertjan Houben. Muhlenberg senior Alan Mendez serves as musical director and musical dramaturg, and he has found appropriate popular music from each era to accompany the action. Senior Patrick Moren designs sound.

Performances of "Passion Play" are March 31 through April 3: Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15 for adults and $8 for students. The production is intended for mature audiences. Performances are in the Baker Theatre in the Trexler Pavilion for Theatre and Dance at Muhlenberg College, 2400 Chew St., Allentown. Tickets and information are available at 484-664-3333 and muhlenberg.edu/theatre.

Founded in 1848, Muhlenberg College is a highly selective, private, four-year residential college located in Allentown, Pa., approximately 90 miles west of New York City. With an undergraduate enrollment of approximately 2,200 students, Muhlenberg College is dedicated to shaping creative, compassionate, collaborative leaders through rigorous academic programs in the arts, sciences, business, education and public health. A member of the Centennial Conference, Muhlenberg competes in 22 varsity sports. Muhlenberg is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Muhlenberg offers Bachelor of Arts degrees in theater and dance. The Princeton Review has ranked Muhlenberg's theater program in the top twelve in the nation for eight years in a row — most recently sixth — and Fiske Guide to Colleges lists both the theater and dance programs among the top small college programs in the United States. Muhlenberg is one of only eight colleges to be listed in Fiske for both theater and dance.