By Amanda Jesse
Washed-Up Theater Critic
On Palm Sunday, a group of second-grade students in a religious formation class put on a forgettable performance of the Passion of the Christ that left audiences cringing.
“It could have been better,” said one parent at the show, who asked to remain anonymous. The sentiment was an extreme understatement.
The most glaring problem of the play was the poor production value. Jesus’ cardboard donkey smiled inanely at the crowds, Roman soldiers hefted a variety of anachronistic weapons, including dart guns, and the cross itself sagged and swayed dangerously throughout, perhaps due to the fact that it was made of construction paper. The props proved so distracting for many of the actors that more than one had to be confiscated mid-performance by the harried director.
“Each actor was responsible for bringing in his or her own props,” explained the director of the show, who is also the religious education teacher. “In hindsight it might have been a better idea to provide a few. Or at least have them approved before the day of the show.”
Among the items she collected were the aforementioned dart guns, which had been aimed at the crowd, a peanut butter sandwich, a broken watch and Judas’ coin bag, which he kept rattling distractingly.
Still, many productions have overcome superficial problems to put on a great show. The trouble with this play, however, goes much deeper. Diction and projection were large problems. Lines that were not mumbled too quietly to be understood were garbled mercilessly by the actors’ fumbling tongues. This made much of the performance incomprehensible. It is fortunate that they performed a story with which the audience was quite familiar, or the viewers would have been completely lost. That being said, there were still moments of confusion.
At the point where (spoiler) Jesus dies, his actor supposedly says, “Unto thee I commend my spirit.” With these words the actors and audience were supposed to kneel in silence for a moment. Unfortunately, many missed the cue because, in the case of the audience, they did not understand what was happening, or, in the case of the actors, they were not paying attention. This took away from the dramatic tension at the climax of the play.
“It was rather awkward,” admitted another anonymous audience member, since the director had to rush forward and ask the audience to kneel.
In fact, on multiple occasions the actors had to be redirected to focus on the performance. Some tried to wander toward their parents, while others simply sat down. Most of these were handled swiftly with discreet promptings from the director. However, on one occasion, a disciple sat squarely on the ground and could not be persuaded to move again for several minutes. The action of the play moved on around him, though several of his fellow actors seemed disconcerted by his presence.
Despite his diction troubles, the Jesus of the play did do a convincing physical performance. He winced with the sting of the paper whips, struggled convincingly under his cross as it fell apart and died dramatically, with a great heaving breath followed by his entire body going limp and his tongue lolling out slightly. This contrasted with Pontius Pilate, who, while delivering her lines with the most clarity, stood stiffly and stared straight ahead with unexpressive eyes.
The second-graders will be performing again on Good Friday, by which time they will have hopefully salvaged what props they can and replaced the rest. While they may be able to make sturdier props, however, there is little they can do to stabilize such a shaky performance.