Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Ruhl's Fans Double Down

Chicago Blogger Rob Kozlowski has stated that Sarah Ruhl's Passion Play was "the worst play I've ever seen." (Here is his review of the play from 2007.)

Even Louise Kennedy, normally a big Ruhl supporter, seemed underwhelmed by the Yale Rep production of Passion Play. However, in an almost conciliatory gesture to the playwright, she concludes:

There's more - much, much more. "Passion Play" is lavish with incident, character, and imagery. It's so lavish, in fact, that it feels ungrateful to ask that it also add up to something bigger. But Ruhl, here and elsewhere, has shown herself capable of working theatrical miracles. Is it too much to wish for one more?

But nothing compares to the following paragraph from John Lahr's review of Passion Play in the current New Yorker:

Ruhl trades in verbal and visual irony; she uses comedy to draw the audience into her deep speculation about our Christ-haunted civilization. “More and more, it seems to me that the separation between church and state is coming into question in our country,” she writes in the program note. “We are a divided nation. And the more divided we are, the less we talk about what divides us.” Ruhl wants to offer the audience illumination, not distraction. Her terse scenes are studded with startling nuggets of lyricism, and her writing commands a special kind of imaginative attention: full of clarity, poetry, and mystery without psychology. “Passion Play” steers a course between the illusions of faith and the illusions of reason, travelling from a time when citizens felt protected by the benevolent hand of God to the time when (until last week) they felt protected by the benevolent hand of the free market.

Can somebody please parse that and tell me what Lahr is talking about? As a religious person and an avid playgoer am not convinced that I need to surrender reason, psychology or my senses in either sphere.

And I'll leave you with a compare and contrast. Emphasis is mine:

Here is Lahr:

Her style is a sort of mesmerizing, symphonic sidewinding. (“Passion Play” is three and a half hours long.) The power of the show is in its cumulative eloquence; themes, symbols, characters, and verbal motifs are rewoven, refracted, and turned back on themselves, transformed before our eyes into a larger discussion that embraces both faith and its bastardization.

Here is a Curtain Up Chicago Review of Passion Play:

Ruhl (whose Clean House also liked to stir things up) tackles many truths here—the unholy marriage of politics and religion, the disconnect between mortals' make-believe and their real motivations, and the self-fulfilling power of a play to alter everyone connected with it. But the overlong, cluttered and scattershot plot, directionless dialogue, quixotic symbol-mongering, kneejerk magic realism, self-indulgent side scenes, and aimless, lazy apostrophes to the audience take a cumulative toll.

Talk about two sides of the same coin.


Rob Kozlowski said...


I'm just thunderstruck that the New Yorker would have anything good to say about anyone originally from the provinces. I suppose she's exempt because she moved away from Chicago?

At an hour and a half in a storefront theater, this could be a really good play.

Art said...

Sorry Rob,

Typing too fast.


Scott Walters said...

Disclaimer: I haven't read the play or seen it.

It seems to me that Lahr is talking about a non-traditional, non-linear structure whose power comes from accretion rather than causality.

Curtain Up finds such a structure scattershot and directionless, perhaps preferring a more traditional linear structure based in causality.

That's a common disagreement, and one's tolerance for alternative structures has been at the center of debates concerning feminism, performance art, and the whole avant garde since the reaction against realism.

Thomas Garvey said...

It's a bit ironic that Lahr's rave for Ruhl should face, within the same article, his pan of Shaffer, because it seems to me the writers share something in common. Both have - or had - superficial appeal to their respective audiences' assumptions; both, at a deeper level, are fundamentally hacks. Somehow I think in thirty years' time, the next John Lahr will be wondering what anyone ever saw in Passion Play.