‘Death of the Messiah’
The stage is dark, except for director Therese Hidalgo, who stands in a halo of light.
She introduces the play, “Death of the Messiah,” the Passion Play which recreates the last days of Christ’s life through the interdenominational, traveling troupe Companions of Jesus of New Mexico. She shares a little bit of the rich, ancient history of passion plays.
Ungelbah Daniel-Davila-News-Bulletin photos
The cast of ‘Death of the Messiah’ will perform the Passion Play five times during the Lenten season.
The play’s birth, humble as the holy man it depicts, took place in 1634 in a small German town called Oberammergau. There, towns people, in the midst of a bubonic plague, vowed to depict the Passion of Christ every 10 years forevermore if their town would be spared from further despair, according to the Catholic Travel Center.
Three centuries later, the play is performed worldwide, from Oberammergau to Nova Jerusalém, Brazil, to Belen, paying homage to the Passion of Christ and the profound teaching it holds for millions of people the world over.
Hidalgo, who was nominated by the board to be the director, says she became involved in the play 10 years ago after what she calls a “spiritual moment” while observing a sculpture of the Pieta, a depiction of Mary cradling the body of her son after he has been removed from the cross.
“It just hit me, because I’m the mom of three sons and I just identified with that scene so deeply that I knew I needed to be in the play — I wanted to be in it,” Hidalgo said.
This recognition of a common humanity is what draws so many people to the life of Christ and to the play, leaving many weeping by its completion.
This version of the play was written by Joe Brown and his wife, Pat.
“They had a vision to bring the Passion Play to different communities throughout the country and the world,” said Hidalgo. “Their goal was to plant seeds, bring it to small communities and then the communities will just carry it on.”
The play, which is free to the public, is now in its 13th season, staying afloat through fundraising, donations and ad sales for their program.
Hidalgo says that as the director, the most difficult aspect is recruitment, but once she finds the right people, they are there to stay. She also says that there is a lot of family involvement in the play.
“Families have to commit,” she said. “We try to use Sunday as a day to do our rehearsals because it is the Lord’s day and we are doing his work. But families have to be involved because we don’t want to take away from family time, and so traditionally that’s how it’s been.”
But the rewards, she said, greatly outweigh any struggles that come with being director.
“There so many more positive things that come out of producing this play and working with the people,” says Hidalgo. “We’ve always taken in members of the community at the last moment who are invited to participate, and they might have some physical or emotional of intellectual challenges but I don’t see those as challenges. I see those as opportunities for them, but also for us and our cast members.
“And the beautiful relationships that build from that is just amazing,” she said. “And getting people to believe in themselves, the things that they thought they’d never be able to do, and how they do it — well that’s one of the rewards at the cast level.”
The play peels back the layers of time to a world inhabited by Jesus, Mary and the Disciples in the troubled land of Palestine, where civil unrest is brewing.
As the audience watches Christ move through his final moments — from the Last Supper to the Garden of Gethsemane to the Stations of the Cross — heavy emotion builds on stage and within the audience.
The experience is compelling, charged and moving for everyone involved. The tears that fall are completely real.
“You have grown women sobbing and coming up to you saying, ‘Gosh, thank you for reminding me of what Jesus did for me. It’s changed my life to really look at how I can live better and be grateful for what he did.’ It really is a spiritual exchange,” says Hidalgo.
Charles Kent, who portrays Jesus Christ in the play, says he didn’t think he was in the right place to play the Savior, but was encouraged to try the part none-the-less.
“I’ve been ‘trying it’ for four years,” he laughs. “But actually, a guy who was playing Judas at the time — my first year — came up to me … He kept telling me, ‘None of us are ever ready to play Jesus — none of us.’
“I think it’s anointed, to be able to feel the emotion and bring out the story,” he said. “It’s difficult because of the emotions. We are all human, and Jesus included, was human.”
Kent said he and the actor that plays Judas feed off of each other and that by the time Judas finds what the soldiers have done to him and leaves the stage saying, “My life is nothing,” he is already in tears.
“I think you don’t realize the impact the play has on people,” said Maria Alicia Cordova, who is in her second season playing Mary. “I think you really move people. Maybe they’re in a down spot and it opens their eyes again or their hearts. I think that’s the best, to see what people take from it.
The play takes between six and eight weeks to prepare for and some of the unsung heros making the performance a success are behind the scenes, including Alice Chavez, makeup director; Susan Duran, costume director; Louie Chavez, lighting director; and Robert Kaneshiro, stage manager.
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