Ritual drama

A scene from last Saturday's full-dress rehearsal. (Photo by Kerri Dornicik)

THE CHURCH IS FILLING NOW with people wearing flowing tunics. The Roman guards sit together. They wear swords and chest-plates over their shorts and t-shirts. Plumed helmets, similarly, sit comfortably above their eyeglasses.

As if the scene weren’t surreal enough, the Virgin Mary tells me that the best place to do an interview would be the confession room, away from the chatter of the denizens of Jerusalem.

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Missy Miron is a spare woman with red hair. She’s wearing a light blue cape over a white tunic. She seems downcast, a little morose — which is perfect. Rehearsal is in 15 minutes. She’s playing the role of the Mother of God in the upcoming St. Mary of the Snow Passion Play and she’s in character.  She feels that there’s responsibility in the role.

“You have to be Mary,” she said. “You must convey what the mother of Christ felt when they’re watching so that they can connect to Christ’s suffering; it’s an attempt to make the story real.”

The portrait propped up on the wall next to her shows Jesus, bloodied and suffering on the Cross, INRI scribbled over his forehead.

“Personally, for me, it puts me so in touch with Christ’s suffering that it’s hard to perform,” said Miron. She notices  that I keep looking out the door at the tall, bearded man with long hair wearing a white cloak pacing the aisle outside of the room.

“If you get a chance,” she says, gesturing to the man outside, “you should talk to Jesus.”

A centuries-old Christian tradition, the Passion Play follows the trial, torture and crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The St. Mary of the Snow Passion Play uses a choir, which sings the lines of the actors. Passion Plays have not been without controversy: in the Middle Ages, they had the unfortunate tendency of provoking violence against Jews, and Mel Gibson’s theatrical version, though a massive box-office success, is remembered more for its graphic depiction of suffering than its message.

Director John Delgado knows it’s important to be moderate. “You have to find a middle ground,” he said.

Delgado does a fine job in finding that middle ground. When Jesus speaks to his disciples, the tone is adroitly gentle. But following his betrayal by Judas, the director doesn’t skimp on the cruelty.

The actors who played Jesus’ disciples earlier in the play become angry townspeople after the betrayal. They hang on Pilate’s words. They accompany Jesus to Golgotha and cheer as he is put on the cross. They encourage his torture at the hands of the guards.

Actors Missy Miron and Mathew Belfance. (Photo by Kerri Dornicik)

The congregation of St. Mary of the Snow has been staging the show for seven years, with many actors returning year after year to participate. There are few constants in the show. “The nuns at the Catholic school I used to go to always told me that I couldn’t behave in church,” said Michael Curtis, who plays a Roman guard. “Over the past few years I’ve been Pilate, Judas, and a guard. I think they might have been right.”

Richard O’Gorman plays the role of Jesus Christ. O’Gorman, who acts only during the yearly Passion Play, is deep in character. To encourage realism and create a more compelling scene, he encourages the actors portraying Roman guards, his torturers, to make physical contact with him. When rehearsing Christ’s beating at the hand of the guards, there is audible contact; it’s hard to watch. Likewise, although they use false whips in practice, O’Gorman is whipped aggressively during the play. (“He is wearing pads on his back, but it still hurts,” says one actor, who wished to remain nameless. “They have drawn blood in the past.”)

“I do think that the role is kind of a calling,” said O’Gorman. “The first year I did the play, I was supposed to play a guard, but the minister who was supposed to play Jesus got sick and I stepped in. I just let the Holy Spirit guide me when I’m up there.”

O’Gorman plays the role with sincerity and a little bit of gusto. The emotions he displays are real; before rehearsal, he can be seen walking around the church, raising his hands and blessing invisible crowds, looking solemn and heartfelt—in other words, Christ-like.

He will sit alone in an empty booth in total silence. When he’s hoisted up onto the cross, he bays the only lines spoken by any actor in the show: “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” (“Father, father, why have you forsaken me?”).

He draws the air out of the room with the phrase, and for a moment the friendliness and charm of the small-town play is sucked out the window, with the audience left to contemplate their Lord’s moment of doubt and pain. Once O’Gorman is removed from the cross, the guards stand at attention, silent as the viewers mill out.

When asked how he gets in character, O’Gorman answers simply, “I pray more.”

 

The St. Mary of the Snow Passion Play will be held Sunday, April 17 at 7 p.m. at the church, 25 Cedar St.

 

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