Local group continues tradition

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The dramatic events of the last days of Christ’s life are performed with remarkable skill and sensitivity by the Companions of Jesus of New Mexico volunteer theater troupe in their rendition of the Passion Play.

Deborah Fox-News-Bulletin photo: Jesus tries to prepare his followers for what is to come in the days leading up to his crucifixion in the Passion Play, performed by the Companions of Jesus of New Mexico theater troupe from Belen. Jesus is played by Ed Curtis, a veteran of the troupe, who shares the role with Charles Kent in this season’s production.

The Passion Play’s tradition in Belen was started by Joe Brown and his wife, Pat, who had originally produced the play in Michigan.

They started it here after moving to the little town named after Bethlehem, reaching out to the Valencia County community to form a small group of volunteer actors that included Therese Hidalgo, who has acted and directed the play for the past 14 years.

“We’re his seedlings, and I wanted to keep it going, and grow it into something bigger and long-standing,” Hidalgo said. “Our mission is to take the message that Jesus came and suffered for us. He was our lamb, he was sacrificed so that we would enter the gates of Heaven.”

The Prince of Peace taught humanity to love one another and treat others as you would like to be treated, she said.

Hidalgo is inspired by the Pietá, the statue by Michelangelo of Mary holding Jesus in her arms.

“Seeing the statue made the pain real for me,” she said, because she too is a mother.

“If you think about it, the pain she felt is the pain that most mothers feel raising their children, male or female, as they go through their tribulations,” Hidalgo said. “It’s the whole role of a mother — you wish you could protect them from things, from life, from some of their own decisions, and it hurts you deeply, in a very visceral way when you can’t, but you’re there for them.”

Hidalgo and her husband, Miguel, work together to produce the play, and many of the cast and crew are families as well.

“It’s become a tradition, especially here,” said Hidalgo. “We go to other communities ― large and small ― to reach out. It’s part of an ancient tradition, where traveling troupes will do performances or plays to depict the last week of Jesus’ life and resurrection. They’re called mystery plays.”

The Companions of Jesus Christ of New Mexico have been performing the Passion Play throughout central New Mexico from Cuba and Las Vegas to Socorro.

Hidalgo enjoys directing with co-director Jack Fink, who also works with the Mansion Players. Fink has 50 years of experience in theater, and is cast as Peter in this season’s performance.

The actors are emotionally and spiritually vested in their roles. Some have come to the play for theatrical experience, many others come as a Lenten practice and all have come for the religious meditation.

It isn’t an ordinary play, and the actors bring the heart and soul of their religious traditions to the stage, charging the production with a mystical quality.

Audience members are deeply affected, and many are moved to tears.

One young girl was so moved by the credible performance of Jesus by actor Ed Curtis that she spoke out to him as Jesus, said Robert Gallegos, who plays high priest, Azariah.

“She really got into it … so we arranged for her to talk to Ed after the performance,” Gallegos said. “It made her feel good. It made the whole cast feel good. You realize it touches people out there, and that’s one of the main things we’re trying to do.”

Gallegos, one of the oldest members at 76, has been with the production for five years.

Playing the role of Jesus is a hard role to live up to, and is very humbling for the actors, said Curtis.

“I’ve done the role on and off for 13 years, and it’s made a real big impact on my life,” he said. “It’s a very demanding role, but it’s worth the reward in the end, especially when after the play little children come up to you and give you little bouquets of flowers.”

He and Charles Kent alternate between the role of Jesus and Saint John.

Kent is in his fifth year of playing Jesus.

“It really speaks to me,” Kent said. “It’s very emotional. You realize your trials just aren’t that bad when you compare it to stuff like this.”

The play opens with the song, “Behold the Lamb,” sung as a prayer in the angelic voice of Kathy Fresquez-Chavez.

Musical accompaniment to the play is provided by singers from the First United Methodist Choir, its director, Laura Armstrong, and vocalist Cindy Jones.

The Companions of Jesus of New Mexico theater troupe is always looking for new members to join the cast and crew, and hope to add people with technical skills, as well as cast members.

For more information about performance dates, getting involved in the 2014 play, or to make a donation, call 710-7323 or 864-9716. You can also inquire by email at passionplayofnm@comcast.net, cbyfn@q.com or ther319863@aol.com, and visit the website at www.passionplayofnewmexico.org.


-- Email the author at dfox@news-bulletin.com.