The People’s Passion Play
Visual and auditory feast brings modern relevance
to an ancient story
|Quest Theatre Ensemble presents|
|The People’s Passion Play|
Review by Joy Campbell
Traditionally, the Lenten season is the time for passion plays – plays that depict the trial, suffering, and death of Jesus Christ, but, as with all art forms, the passion play has been open to adaptation and expansion. Creator Andrew Parks wanted to make the story timely and relevant to our lives today; he succeeds. Quest Theatre Ensemble’s The People’s Passion Play starts with The Creation and ends with the resurrection of Christ, fitting it all into 80 entertaining minutes by selecting the highlights: Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah, Abraham and Isaac, Moses etc. From Genesis to the Gospels, the Judeo-Christian story of Man’s relationship with God is told using folk music, breathtaking puppetry, whimsy, intelligence, and humor, with pointers to its universality and relevance to our lives today.
Narrated by Peter, Paul, and Mary (Ryan Gaffney, Mike Mazzocca, and Erin Daly), a winning folk trio reminiscent of their namesake in their wit, social commentary, and tight harmonies, the story is told exclusively through song and narrative, with the action played out by the cast using the beautiful puppetry designed by Nick Rupard and Luke Verkamp. Under the excellent direction of James T. Scott, the large, multi-talented cast sings, performs, wields props, and wears the cumbersome puppet costumes fluidly like a choreographed dance as the action flows from one story to the next. It’s a testament to how much I enjoyed anticipating the next use of puppets that my main criticism is that they were not used to tell the story of the plagues of Egypt; instead, we were provided a quick flip-chart presentation. For a show as delightfully imaginative as this, I’d assume they’d have dug into the locusts, frogs, and a sea of blood with creative relish. Still, there is plenty to feast our eyes upon despite this: we get some great visuals with the Old Testament stories, including the forming of the planets, animals on the ark (yes, there’s a heartbreaking unicorn), a snaky-armed Pharaoh, and others. Most of the music is original to the show, impressively written by Andrew Park and Scott Lamps; some of the songs are folk songs in the public domain. “Holy Moses” in particular is a catchy original song about the flight of the Israelites, and will stick in your head long after you leave the theater. My friend and I were singing it all the way home.
This is not a play about religious doctrine, but instead about the way our beliefs inform our behavior. Jesus is presented as a dancing, happy leader who brings joy wherever he goes, like a traveling party; indeed, in one scene, he and the apostles cross the stage in a conga line. Quest’s production emphasizes the social-responsibility aspect of Christ’s teachings: freeing the oppressed, caring for the downtrodden, resisting the abusive, impersonal power of the wealthy. There is some funny barbed commentary (“Jesus healed the sick, and he didn’t worry about pre-existing conditions”), and the Beatitudes are re-tooled to include people with HIV, soldiers returned from war, and victims of mass violence. The show does give the somber portions of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion the respect they are due: we feel the pain and loneliness of Christ’s capture and crucifixion, and we rejoice at his resurrection. Further insightful commentary is made about turning away from violence, drawing parallels with events today. If you long for the days of Joan Baez and a return to Peace and Love, this show will hit your nostalgia button. For the rest, it’s a great message wrapped up in good entertainment for all.
The People’s Passion Play continues through March 31st at Blue Theater, 1609 W. Gregory (map), with performances Fridays/Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays 2pm. Admission is free; reservations are highly recommended via e-mail (email@example.com) or by filling out form at bottom of this page. More information at QuestEnsemble.org. (Running time: 80 minutes, includes an intermission)
Ryan Gaffney (Peter), Mike Mazzocca (Paul), Erin Daly (Mary), Andrew Coil, Billy Dawson, Sarah Jordan, Meredith Reynolds, Lindsey Spencer (Bible Belters), Amy Leigh Abelson, Aimee Bass, Rachel Copel, Ashley Echevarria, David Esposito, David Leef, Peter Navis, Amber Lee Olivier, Kirk Osgood, Rayme Silverberg (Puppeteers)
behind the scenes
James T. Scott (director); Nick Rupard (scenic design, puppetry design); Luke Verkamp (puppetry design); Tommy Nolan (lighting deign); Staci Wiegum (costume design); Julie Taylor (scenic art); Mark Abrahamson (stage manager); Emily Kerstaffan, John Steman, Jr. (assistant stage managers); Braxton Black (photos)