Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Perils of Playing Jesus

I figure most of us have seen the Easter story dramatized in one way or another, either pageants or programs at church or one of the "biblical" movies at the theater or on television.  Some of us have probably attended a passion play, a dramatized outdoor reenactment of the Holy Week story, Palm Sunday through Easter.

When I was in college I heard a guest speaker, a woman who produced passion plays professionally, getting them up and running and well-established, before moving on to the next start up. She gave us some great perspective about what goes on behind the scenes and what kinds of things can go wrong. I asked her to describe her worst opening night experience, and she didn't hesitate. Here's her story as best I can remember it, too great a story to ever forget.

Three things went wrong, she said, which wouldn't be bad for an opening night, except these three things were just about the worst imaginable. Number one: the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the first major scene in the play. Jesus was coming down the road into Jerusalem riding on a donkey, the enthusiastic crowd waving palm branches before him. The road was lined with fake Roman columns of decreasing size to give the effect of greater distance. About halfway down the road, the donkey stopped cold, determined not to go another step. The disciples tried to coax him on, pulling and pushing, all to no avail. Jesus was stuck. The procession halted. (The producer explained to us that all such outdoor dramas follow a recorded soundtrack. The action on stage must keep up with the soundtrack or everything falls apart.) Knowing this, one of the actors playing a Roman soldier decided something had to be done to get this stubborn donkey moving again, so he pulled his sword and jabbed the donkey, trying to prod it forward. This proved to be a mistake. The donkey sprang to life, bucking off Jesus and knocking down several of the fake columns which went down like dominoes. Jesus dumped unceremoniously on his can - not in the script. Ripples of laughter from the surprised audience. The red-faced Messiah had to hoof it into the city on his own two feet. Oh, well, soon enough things smoothed out and the drama regained it's serious mood and message. Until, that is, it was time for the events of Good Friday.

Our guest speaker explained to us that she always worked hard to insure the safety of the cast, trying to anticipate and eliminate all potential hazards. But this night something went very wrong. Number two: the crucifixion of Jesus. The actor playing the role of Christ was hanging on the cross, perhaps the most solemn, tearful moments of the play. At the end of Jesus' suffering, a Roman soldier standing near the cross was supposed to thrust a retractable spear in Jesus' side confirming his death as the Gospels describe. But the spear in the soldier's hand was not the retractable spear he was supposed to have, it was a real spear. So, when the soldier thrust the spear into the actor's side, he doubled over and screamed, "Jesus Christ! I've been stabbed!"

Hard to imagine the shock. The sheer surprise caused peals of laughter. Hilarious. And, it was certainly an interesting choice of words, wasn't it, more like a SNL skit than a passion play. But, then again, the poor guy had never rehearsed this. The producer said that looking back, the actor could have said a lot of things much worse.

The whole set went dark, the soundtrack stopped, as Jesus #1 was taken to the hospital for treatment and Jesus #2, his second, assumed his place on the cross. The sound and lights came back up and once again the crowd settled down and the story continued, although here and there people would burst out laughing again, just thinking about those stunning words of Jesus, swearing to himself. Well, Easter went off without a hitch and the producer thought she was home free now.  Surely nothing else can go wrong on this night. Or maybe it can.

Number three: the ascension of Christ. The plan was that Jesus would be invisibly wired up so that he could be raised from the ground slowly as he gave the Great Commission to his disciples. He would then be lifted up into this high arched ceiling, dramatically disappearing from sight. The unanticipated problem was that Jesus #2 was taller and heavier than Jesus #1. So, when Jesus was supposed to begin his ascent, he didn't. "Go ye therefore . . . ." Nothing. He's too big, but Jesus didn't know it, so he tried once more. Raising his arms and beginning again, "Go ye therefore . . . ." Still nothing. Backstage it's panic. Somebody overrides the system and suddenly Jesus takes off like Superman. "Go ye therefore . . . ," and he was gone. Again, uproarious laughter. No effort to hold it back now.

And then, just to add insult to injury, the angel appeared and said to the disciples, "You, men of Galilee, why do you stand here gazing up into heaven?" And there, in the heavenward gaze of the disciples, still dangling in plain sight, were the feet of Jesus. The launched Lord had not completely ascended after all, too tall to get his toes out of sight.

When it was finally over, all those present that opening night were offered a full refund, the only fair thing to do in the producer's mind. She said that surprisingly enough, not a single request for a refund was received. Apparently, everyone present believed they had gotten more than their money's worth that night, a night never to be forgotten.

Maybe it's just as well that God planned and produced those great Easter events without our help. Better to just let Jesus be Jesus.    

1 comment:

Laura Tally said...

Great Story Drew. Do you know if this is one that was performed at the Crystal Cathedral in CA?