U.S. playwright Sarah Ruhl’s Passion Play opens in Toronto Monday in a production that leads the audience from an outdoor stage in a local park to a church setting as it fast-forwards through 450 years of history.

The Passion Play is the long-standing Christian tradition of enacting the story of the final days of Jesus Christ, often staged during Lent in churches of certain denominations.

Ruhl’s work is an examination of politics and religion and theatre that centres on the stories of three groups of people putting on a Passion Play — the first in Elizabethan England, the second in Nazi Germany and the third in 1980s America.

'I think it’s fairly neutral in terms of its relationship to religion –

[Ruhl] says or actually Pontius says it ‘I’m not sure whether we have too much religion in our world or not enough.’
—co-director Alan Dilworth

The three theatre troupes involved in the Toronto production — Convergence Theatre, Sheep No Wool Production and Outside the March — specialize in site-specific immersive theatre which puts the audience close to the action.

Co-director Aaron Willis said they sought out an outdoor space — Withrow Park in Toronto’s Riverdale — close to an indoor stage — at Eastminster United Church — to help create the sense of three very different acts.

"We figured in seeing the script, which goes from the Elizabethan era through to the contemporary era, we thought that starting outdoors seemed appropriate for an Elizabethan performance," he said. "Part  of the journey of the play is the progress of theatre — from an outdoor stage to an indoor stage and the acting styles — how they change over the centuries."

3 directors

Alan Dilworth, who shared directing duties with Willis and Mitchell Cushman, said the choice of a church for two segments of the play was almost serendipity. There is a "resonance" to the church setting, he pointed out, because of the associations of the traditional Passion Play.

In between acts 1 and 2, a troupe of actors bearing colourful fishes traipse through leafy suburban streets, the audience following them to a new location.

"It’s a real journey for the audience," Dilworth said.

The core of the very different Passion Play stories in each act is the way each era adapts a mythic tale for contemporary purposes. So while the same actors play the same Passion Play characters —Mary, Jesus, Pontius Pilate or an angel — in each act, their "real-life" characters are revealed to be quite different.

Mayko Nguyen, an actress best known for her role as detective Elizabeth Liette in CBC crime drama Cracked, plays the part of Mary in each segment of the play.

As the mother of Jesus, she is expected to be pure in body and spirit, but her real character is a sharp contrast. While the Elizabethan Mary is a lusty wench, the Germany Mary is a manipulator and the American Mary is trapped in a marriage that’s not working out.

"There are three distinct characters and there are overlapping connections between the three, but it’s interesting because what the play really deals with is what we are told to be and what we are intrinsically and I think, in the first act of the play, the role of Mary as a smiley, innocent is juxtaposed with her more sexual nature. It’s very clear,"  she says.

The play also stars Andrew Kushnir, Julie Tepperman Richard Binsley, Amy Keating, Jordan Pettle and Cyrus Lane as Pontius Pilate.

Playing Adolf Hitler

It’s Maev Beaty who steps into the most powerful roles created by Ruhl. In the first act, she’s Queen Elizabeth I, ready to lop off the head of anyone involved in a Passion Play, then seen as a Catholic rite. In the third act, she’s Ronald Reagan, the U.S. president from 1981-89, who gives a smiling and smarmy blessing to the play.

But the most difficult role was as Adolf Hitler — who  actually attended the 1934 staging of the Passion Play in the Bavarian town of Oberammergau, where it has been enacted every year since 1634.

"A little section of what he says ‘that we have to protect future generations and stay watchful in the menace of the Jews and that’s why the Passion Play has to continue’ – that’s taken from an actual speech. This is Ruhl contextualizing, he’s using the play as a way to propagate his hatred," Beaty said.

Each powerful figure Beaty plays casts the journey of the Passion Play in a new light, exposing the huge political forces at work. Hitler also draws a sharp reaction from the audience – ranging from laughs to gasps.

"What I’m trying to figure out as an actor is what was it that made him (Hitler) so unbelievably compelling and charismatic to people. What were the games he was playing?" she said. "Sarah (Ruhl) is playing with questions of individual responsibility vs how a community behaves as a group and the political posititioning of a community."

Ruhl  was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for both The Vibrator Play and Clean House. Dilworth praises the quality of the writing, in particular the speeches by Pontius Pilate.  Pilate is one of the roles few people want in any Passion Play and Ruhl was first inspired to write by thinking about the men who might have wanted to play the hero, but end up reluctantly playing the villain.

Big playwright of her time

"She’s a big a playwright of her time in America and she’s obviously poetically bold," Dilworth said, adding that the play has less to say about religion than about human nature.

"I think it’s fairly neutral in terms of its relationship to religion – [Ruhl]

says or actually Pontius says it ‘I’m not sure whether we have too much religion in our world or not enough.’ She hits that note and I think it’s a beautiful sentiment for 2013," Dilworth adds.

The Passion Play, which is being brought to Toronto's East End by Crow's Theatre, opens Monday and plays until June 30 at Withrow Park and Eastminster United Church. In case of rain, the play is staged entirely in the church.