by Chris Meehan Faith Editor Kalamazoo Gazette April 3, 2004
The threat of rain added a note of realism to last year's first Easter Passion Play at Andrews University. Looming in the sky, the storm clouds caused a kind of darkness -- reminiscent of that described in biblical accounts of Christ's final hours -- to fall over the campus of the Seventh Day Adventist school. Although the ominous weather heightened the drama, it also led to a few frantic and yet prayerful moments for those putting on the outdoor event, said university spokesperson Katie Shaw. "We got together and prayed very hard -- right as the play was going on -- that the rain stay away," Shaw said. Fortunately, said Shaw, their prayers were heard. Rain poured down all around the university but not on the thousands of people attending the play. "Last year it definitely was God who was directing," Shaw said.
Weather permitting, Andrews' Second Annual Easter Passion Play will be performed 25 times during Easter weekend, April 10-11. Featuring more than 90 actors and eight different people as Jesus, the play will start every half hour beginning at 2:45 p.m. on Saturday and 10:30 a.m. on Sunday and run until early evening both days. Each of the interactive walk-throughs depicting the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is 90 minutes long. There are no longer any tickets available for Saturday, but people can still obtain tickets for Sunday. "Our ultimate goal is for people to have a real encounter with Christ," said Jeremy Carscallen, director of the drama, which last year drew 5,000 people to the campus. "We are doing this as a visual interpretation, especially for our very visually oriented society," said Carscallen, 23, a junior. "Our hope is that someone will see Christ for the first time through our play."
Not like the movie
As the young man shaping this year's drama, Carscallen has built the script out of various New Testament verses that describe the last days, the death and resurrection of Jesus. "Ninety percent of it is right out of the New Testament," he said. "I've only added a couple scenes to help tell the story." He has also consciously avoided watching "The Passion of the Christ," Mel Gibson's controversial film that focuses on Christ's final 12 hours. The movie, he says, has generated a good deal of discussion about Jesus and what he faced at the hands of Roman soldiers. It has also prompted people to look at the message Christ preached. While this is good, Carscallen says, he didn't want to be influenced by Gibson's telling of the passion story. "This is not a play of the movie," he said. "We tell the same story, and yet this is much less violent."
Gibson's movie shows a lengthy scene in which Roman soldiers brutally scourge Christ. In the play at Andrews, the scourging takes place behind a curtain, with sound effects providing the sense of what Jesus had to endure. Also in the Gibson film is a scene showing Judas hanging himself after betraying Jesus. At Andrews, the audience will pass a tree in which hangs a rope but not a figure of Jesus' betrayer. "I don't want people walking away talking about how gruesome it is," said Carscallen. "I want them to say, 'The resurrection was awesome. The tomb was empty. I have reason to hope.' "
It's all live
Nearly 550 students, faculty, staff, alumni, and community members have volunteered to put on the production, which begins with a slide show in the university's Pioneer Memorial Chapel and ends in the dimly lit gymnasium for the resurrection scene. In between, the action occurs outside at various locations on the campus. "In North America, 98 percent of the passion plays are held indoors in a church or an auditorium, " said Ron Whitehead, an Andrews University professor of evangelism. By keeping the play indoors, producers can control such things as rain or wind or even the possibility of an early-spring snow. But, said Whitehead, indoor production also means less of an effect.
At Andrews, the audience watches Christ riding into Jerusalem on a live donkey. They stroll through a Middle Eastern market place. They stand under a balcony as Pilate washes his hands and accompany Jesus as he carries his cross. "Holding the play outdoors makes it far more authentic," Whitehead said. "People can feel like they are more a part of it. It feels like less of a performance." Adding to the atmosphere, play organizers say, are actors who mingle with the crowd, encouraging people to shout praise during Christ's triumphant, Palm Sunday entry on a donkey. Many of these same costumed actors will be there in the crowd shouting for Pilate to condemn Jesus to death.
The Middle Eastern market will replicas of first-century-era pots, baskets, food and clothing. "The marketplace scene is used to draw people into the passion play," Shaw said. In addition, Whitehead said, the play will depict the Last Supper and offer stops along the way for people to talk about what they have just seen. "A passion play is a good way of transferring values that are in Scripture," he said.
Whitehead said he has long been an admirer of passion plays and has seen them around the world. It was his idea last year to begin what he hopes will be an annual event at Andrews. He says passion plays are a form of religious teaching that originated in the Middle Ages in Europe, where a few elaborate, often outdoor, productions still occur. The most famous is the one in Oberammergau, Bavaria, an eight-hour play that is staged every 10 years. It won't be offered again until 2010. "We use a European model with our passion play," said Whitehead. Although the play is being held at a Seventh-Day Adventist school, the focus is on Jesus and not on distinctive aspects of the denomination. "We want people to see Jesus and not the Adventist church. It is more important to us that people meet the savior," said Kristin Denslow, 20, producer of the play.
Envy of angels
Last year the play's producers patched the show together in a few short weeks. Even though it came off successfully, producers decided this year to start preparing in September. Volunteers were needed to make costumes, build scenery, locate and obtain materials for the Middle Eastern marketplace and practice for the play itself. Rehearsals this year have been a particular challenge, given the number of people playing the main characters. Multiple actors are needed for the key roles because of the revolving nature of the production. "There will be four people playing Jesus at any one time," said Carscallen. "Each Jesus has his own set of disciples. Also each has to have a Mary (mother of Jesus) and Mary Magdalene."
Last year, Lauren Chadwick, 21, played an angel who appeared after Christ rises from the dead. This year she is the assistant director in charge of volunteers. "I've fallen in love with the passion play," she said. "It is such a blessing to see God work in people's lives." Two of the young men playing Jesus say that being in the production has had a profound effect on their lives by giving them a better sense of what Christ confronted. "Being able to see the story of the final days of Christ's life through his eyes has made his life so much more real to me," said John Hood, a junior. "No human being could have survived what happened to him."
Kareem Shaw, a fifth-year theology student, is playing Christ for a second season. "It's a hard endeavor, not just participating in a spiritual work but actually portraying the role of the Messiah," he said. "It's one I don't always feel worthy of doing. In fact, as I get closer to the day, I see more and more my unworthiness, yet ... it is an honor to help out in a ministry that angels may weep and envy at the chance to share."
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