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The Crucible And Passion Play

October 3, 2007

In his history of Chicago theatre A Theater of Our Own: 1,001 Nights in Chicago, longtime theatre critic for the Chicago tribune Richard Christiansen says this of Steppenwolf Theatre company's relationship with Arthur Miller's The Crucible:

"Still, in those early years, [Steppenwolf] kept close to the gritty, edgy, contemporary works that made their reputation. When Austin Pendleton, the New-York based actor-director who joined the Steppenwolf ensemble in 1987, urged the company to tackle The Crucible, Arthur Miller's drama set in a Puritan community of seventeenth-century New England, [Gary] Sinise dutifully read the play but reported back, 'I just can't see us doing a play where people are called "Goodie" and wear buckles on their shoes.'"

I just got back from a business trip to the Windy City and am happy to report that Steppenwolf has gotten over its former identity crisis and does a very good job with this play. Thanks to the Chicago-based playwright and journalist Kerry Reid for sending me this astute quote. I've seen The Crucible many times. But Anna Shapiro's production is coiled as tight as a spring. She makes Miller's Red Scare allegory feel absolutely current, even though some of the characters are called Goodie and most of them wear buckles on their shoes. The best thing about the production is that I spent the entire two and a half hours feeling like I've never seen the play before. There were knots in my stomach in the trial scene. I held my breath. I wanted to yell "Nooooooo!" when the usually honest Elizabeth Proctor told a lie in court. I don't think I've felt so emotionally involved at the theater since I saw Pillowman a few months ago at Berkeley Rep.

The day after I saw The Crucible, I went to see Sarah Ruhl's Passion Play at The Goodman Theatre. Ruhl's play is massive and unruly. It's in three loosely connected sections. Including two intermissions, it's three and a half hours long. Over the course of that marathon, Ruhl explores the evolution of the Passion Play about Christ's life, death and resurrection from its roots in Medieval England through a famous production in pre-World War II Germany to a small-town production in South Dakota in the post-war years. The first section of the play, set under Queen Elizabeth's reign in 1575 is just like one of the key images -- a jack in the box. It is full of surprises, and bristles with bawdy humor and theatricality. Like most old-fashioned toys, it is also very sinister. Actors pop in and out of holes in the bare, IKEA-like wooden set. Mark Wing-Davey's mise-en-scene is grave and sprightly. Just like the Passion Play itself, which had grown to become an anachronism in Renaissance England, the play and production have fun with old fashioned language, stage machinery and ancient folk traditions.

It's a shame that the jack-in-the-box spirit fades away in the second and third parts of the play. Things become didactic. Ruhl tries to handle so many themes and ideas, such as the relationship between theatre and politics, the role of religion in society, morality and the function of art and the artist. But many of the concepts get lost as the play goes on while other ideas, such as the colonial theme as represented by toy ships flowing across the stage, seem insubstantial and ill-woven into the fabric of the work as a whole. Still, it's worth seeing Passion Play for the first part alone. I'm also extremely happy to see The Goodman Theatre give this massive, ambitious play a second airing. Most companies would balk at doing this. It's one thing to commission a work and present the first production (as Arena Stage in Washington DC did with Passion Play) but quite another to take up the reigns beyond the glory of a world premiere. It's a true resurrection.

The best thing about seeing The Crucible and Passion Play in such close proximity is to marvel at their similarities. Though very different in some ways, both works have comparable things to say about religious dogma and how spirituality can be warped and twisted to substantiate particular ideological or political beliefs. Similarly, both dramas are concerned with the blurred line between performance and reality.

In my final few hours in Chicago, I had a stroll a few rooms at the Art Institute. One of the most striking paintings I saw was Francisco de Zurbaran's The Crucifixion (1627.) I was very much struck by the Christ's "performance" in the painting. The dramatic light, the figure's puffy, almost curtain-like loin cloth, and the non-naturalistic black backdrop compounded the fact that this Christ neither looked like he was suffering nor was actually hanging from the cross -- he was standing, like actors in Passion Plays, on a wooden ledge. As I stared at this figure, I began to think of a line from Ruhl's play. The character who delivers this line is Ronald Reagan. I leave you with the politician's words:

"People are afraid of actors. They’re afraid we’re good at lying. I’ll let you in on a little secret. We’re really just extra good at telling the truth."

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