Churches look past the `Passion'

Easter: Home-grown dramatizations struggle in the shadow of the movie.

April 10, 2004|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN STAFF

With Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ surging past $330 million at the box office, the modest Passion Plays that many churches traditionally stage this Easter weekend might seem a tough sell.

After all, how can a single congregation compete with a cultural phenomenon that now ranks No. 10 among Hollywood's all-time money-makers - just behind Finding Nemo and ahead of Forrest Gump?

The answer at Trinity Assembly of God Church in Lutherville is a new script emphasizing elements The Passion did not: context, character and the teachings of Jesus.

"Mel Gibson didn't really deal with the life of Christ or the resurrection of Christ," said Pastor Brian Biondo, executive director of Trinity's $35,000 production, The Third Day.

"Unless you read through the Gospels, you probably didn't understand who all the characters were and what was happening."

Tomorrow's celebration of Easter is the central holiday for the world's 2 billion Christians, commemorating what they believe was Christ's resurrection nearly 2,000 years ago.

For the faithful, Christ's resurrection from the dead validates his teachings and his claim to be the son of God.

To meet an expected increase in Easter demand, theater owners are putting The Passion in nearly 200 additional venues, bringing the total to about 3,400.

Although The Passion received mixed reviews and has been criticized for its violence and depiction of Jews, many Christians have found it deeply moving.

James Shapiro, author of Oberammergau: The Troubling Story of the World's Most Famous Passion Play, said the movie, which Gibson spent $30 million of his own to make, raises the stakes for local productions and will visually define the Passion story for years to come.

"There is something powerful about Gibson's film, like it or not," said Shapiro, a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. "Its images are going to make those traditional stage versions seem more tame and less emotionally engaging."

So far, churches are dealing with The Passion in different ways.

In the past, Trinity staged productions that were largely musical, with most of the drama mimed.

This year, the production team has doubled the dialogue, focusing on a pair of apostles and their mother, who tell Christ's story in flashback five years after his crucifixion.

The apostles, Peter and Andrew, and their mother, Anna, provide commentary between musical numbers that are backed by a 40-piece orchestra.

They describe Jesus as a human being and explain how his teachings inspired such rituals as Holy Communion. In one instance, Peter talks about Jesus' understanding of human frailty as demonstrated by his forgiveness when Peter lies out of fear and tells people he doesn't know Christ.

"I loved the movie when I could keep my eyes open," said Parise Campbell, a Trinity church employee who wrote the script for The Third Day and had trouble watching the violence of The Passion.

"But I also feel that many people who saw the film have no idea who Jesus is. I just really was hoping that anyone who would come to our production would get a better glimpse of his personality and his character."

Other local churches as well are marketing their Passion Plays as a broader look at Jesus. Instead of focusing on the last 12 hours of Christ's life - as Gibson's film does - Northwest Baptist Church in Reisterstown follows Jesus from the manger to resurrection in a production called The Promise.

"You've heard about the Passion of the Christ. Now see the full story!" proclaims the church on its Web site, www.

"We were hoping that people would have an interest in getting more than they got in the movie," said the Rev. Grant Lauterbach, the church's associate pastor.

Given the attention the movie has generated, some congregations have decided to forgo productions altogether. Normally, Centralia Community Church of God in Washington state puts on a show with more than 40 actors.

This year, "we felt it would be anti-climactic," said Pastor Darcy Fast, who delivered a series of sermons based on The Passion and played trailers of the movie during weekend services.

Producers at Trinity in Lutherville say the movie has not hurt their box office. The church sold 2,500 tickets for its two public performances, last night and today at 3 p.m.

For the Rev. Kevin Ashe, though, it's a different story. Ashe produces The Passion Play - The Musical, the longest-running production of its kind in the country. The show, which dates to 1915 and is staged in Union City, N.J., relies heavily on tour and church groups.

Ashe, a Roman Catholic priest, said ticket sales are down about 20 percent because so many people have seen the movie, which opened several weeks before the curtain went up on this year's show.

"Timing is everything," said Ashe. "We just got whacked."

The Passion and this weekend's church productions are part of a tradition stretching back to the Middle Ages, when Passion Plays emerged in Spain, Italy and Germany to provide the illiterate masses with a dramatic rendering of Christ's final hours.

Citing the role the Jewish High Priest Caiaphas played in Christ's death, however, church leaders used productions to emphasize anti-Jewish stereotypes and to inspire hatred and violence against the Jews as a people.

Some interfaith leaders voiced fears that Gibson's film could reinforce the ancient claim that Jews were "Christ-killers."

But the ensuing controversy fueled unprecedented media coverage for a biblical film and helped drive The Passion to record box office success.

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