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Review: 'Passion Play' a religious-themed romp through history

Right at the start of Sarah Ruhl's "Passion Play," now at the Odyssey Theatre, a religious crisis of the kind Freud would have appreciated erupts.

The actress playing Mary in the town's religious pageant secretly has the hots for the young hunk playing Jesus. How can she be expected to act maternal — never mind holy — when he's strutting around so temptingly in a loin cloth that keeps slipping?

The frolicsome boldness of Ruhl's imagination is on cheeky display in this Odyssey Theatre Ensemble-Evidence Room co-production directed by Bart DeLorenzo. The work may be thematically unwieldy, dramatically unfocused and overly long, but the insouciant levity is revitalizing and the sheer ambition of the piece is worthy of a salute.

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Divided into three sections, each set in a different historical period, "Passion Play" revolves around the backstage drama of amateurish theater productions depicting the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ.

Beginning in Elizabethan England when Catholics rites are being forced underground, the play jumps ahead to Nazi Germany before landing in America in the late 1960s and flashing ahead to the Reagan era, when a B-movie actor strategically blurs the boundary between church and state to strengthen his hold on the highest office of the land.

As always with Ruhl, a prolific talent whose work includes "In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play," "The Clean House" and "Eurydice," serious matters are handled in a whimsical fashion. Religious freedom, the Holocaust and the trauma of war are all encompassed in her dramatic triptych, but the mainspring of the work seems to be the ironic interplay between role and performer.

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How does portraying Jesus or Pontius Pilate or the Virgin Mary affect an actor? Is goodness infectious? What about evil? What sort of spiritual knowledge is born out of manufacturing an ideal illusion from messy human imperfection? Is religion nothing more than a conspiracy of belief, a collective fraud designed to impose order on an unchangingly violent and chaotic world?

The subject matter is rich, and Ruhl examines it from a variety of angles, historical, political, philosophical, and yes, theatrical. The central roles in the Passion play are performed by the same actors for each period, setting up parallels and recurring historical motifs.

But the playwright's approach may be a bit too exploratory. By the time the piece focuses on the plight of a returning Vietnam War vet in South Dakota, the diffuse style and capricious humor challenge our emotional investment in the story line.

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DeLorenzo's actors, scampering about the scenic elements of Frederica Nascimento's backstage set, are all game for the adventure. Daniel Bess, Christian Leffler, Bill Brochtrup and Dorie Barton dexterously establish the play's deadpan tragicomic universe. Shannon Holt, who variously masquerades as Queen Elizabeth, Hitler and Ronald Reagan, kicks things up a few notches with her supercharged parodies.

An early work of Ruhl's that took years to finish, "Passion Play" betrays its drawn-out birth. But there's much to enjoy and admire in a production that is passionately committed to one of the American theater's most inventive dramatists, a writer who knows that all the world is a stage and loves nothing more than peering behind the curtain for an impromptu view.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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'Passion Play'

Where: Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., L.A.

When: Call for schedule. Ends March 16.

Tickets: $25 to $30

Contact: (310) 477-2055 Ext. 2 or http://www.OdysseyTheatre.com

Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes

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