Passion Play‘s Journey Through Time

At four hours long, this sprawling, religious epic makes demands of its audiences—but it's worth the trouble.

The Director (Jordan Pettle) speaks to "J" (Andrew Kushnir) while they rehearse the crucifixion scene.

  • Eastminister Church (310 Danforth Avenue)
    • June 10–30
  • $25—$30

Performance dates



There are a lot of chefs in the kitchen for the Canadian premiere of Sarah Ruhl’s Passion Play, a triptych set in three time periods that tells the stories of amateur actors (played by real actors) involved in staging performances of the story of Christ. Three different Toronto independent theatre companies, all with reputations for innovative staging and creation in their past work, each tackle one of the three acts. Ordinarily, such a complicated arrangement would be to a show’s detriment, but not in this case. While you need to be prepared for a marathon of theatre (the show runs four hours, incluing two intermissions), you’re certainly going to get your money’s worth.

Sheep No Wool artistic director Alan Dilworth helms the first act, set in Elizabethean England, when Catholics have been declared enemies of the crown. A priest (Richard Binsley) arrives and is given refuge in the village while rehearsals for a passion play continue, but he’s not the only secret the villagers are hiding. P (Cyrus Lane), who plays both Pontius and the devil, harbours a seething resentment of J (Andrew Kushnir), the virtous lead player. P also lusts for Mary 1 (Mayko Nguyen), who, when she isn’t playing the virgin mother, wanders the village late at night, lonely, and sometimes finds company. Mary 2 (Julie Tepperman) also has sinful thoughts about another player, and the one person who does speak her mind (Amy Keating) is shunned as the village idiot by the controlling Director (Jordan Pettle) and the other villagers (Katherine Cullen, Thrasso Petras, and Sam Kalilieh).

Dilworth manages his ensemble’s myriad personal storylines, and keeps the surfeit of exposition moving at a decent clip. But on rainy days, like when we saw Passion Play, he’s working at a disadvantage, because his part of the play is supposed to performed outdoors, in Withrow Park—after which the show moves inside nearby Eastminster United Church for its remaining two acts. Indoors, act one’s proceedings lack some of the immediacy that we suspect might be stronger al fresco. (Our photographer was lucky enough to see an earlier show, in the sun.)

Convergence Theatre’s Aaron Willis takes over after the first intermission. His act is set in 1930s Germany, when an English tourist (Binsely) can still visit the famous Oberammergau passion play, but is distinctly uncomfortable in the now-fascist country. The J of this era, who has inherited his beloved father’s lead role in the passion play, is nervous and unsure of himself, whereas 1930s-era P has seen his lot in life improve considerably since he joined the army. The paranoia and fear caused by Germany’s rapid militarization spill over into the show within the show, especially after Hitler himself (Maev Beaty, who also appeared briefly and memorably as the Queen in act one) pays the town a visit. Not long after, Vi (Keating) who is Jewish and “other,” faces a fate worse than exile.

The final act, directed by Outside the March’s Mitchell Cushman, takes place after a second intermission and a snack of bagels in the church basement. Its stage configuration is similar to the one in act two, though some chairs are replaced with beanbag chairs and think mats, because we’re in 1969 now. P has once again joined the army, and he proposes to his fiance (Mayko Nguyen) before leaving. His battlefield experiences have left lasting damage, and the passion play company he returns to has begun hiring professional actors, leading to a confrontation between P and his brother, P and his wife—P and everyone, really.

Ruhl, the writer, is playing with a lot of different themes in the three different acts, which makes sense, since some of the parts were written years apart. Suffice it to say that the cast is first-rate, though we were particularly impressed by Cyrus Lane’s deeply flawed characters, Mayko Nguyen’s conflicted Mary, and Amy Keating in the first act. And of course, a special mention must go to the pregnant Beaty, whose Ronald Reagan in the third act was particularly spot-on (and more than a little creepy).

There’s really just one big question to ask yourself. Can you handle almost four hours of theatre? We briefly wondered if the show wouldn’t have been better off broken into segments, like Theatrefront’s The Mill. But ultimately, the three acts build on one another, with sly callbacks to past “time periods.” This is a rare site-specific production featuring some of the city’s best actors and three of its hottest directors. Overlong or not, you more or less get three shows for the price of one. Hallelujah indeed.

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