Directing the play is Bayonne resident Carl Gonzalez. From Union City are David and Maria Fricke, Priscilla Arevalo, and Kevin Pidgeon-Hammock. Hailing from North Bergen are Arlene and Mariette Ng. Gil Mayol represents Secaucus. Bayonne participants are Sandra Gonzalez, Randy Barrier, Jonathan Drayton, Richard Dwyer, and Jose Mediavilla. Bruce Barton is from Jersey City, and David Law from Kearny.
Initial performances are scheduled for Saturday, April 5, at 2 and 8 p.m., at the arts center, 560 32nd St., Union City. Other performances are slated for Saturday, April 12, at 2 p.m., and Thursday, April 10 at 10 a.m. (a performance for students).
The story of Jesus’ last days on earth, the production has been performed in Union City since 1915, and is the longest-running passion play in the United States, according to theater officials.
“This theater production has appealed to generations of viewers both from the immediate area and to East Coast tourists who visit every year from as far away as Virginia and Canada,” said Community Relations Director Daniela Thome.
The play originated in Union City when a group of German and Swiss immigrants of Holy Family Parish decided to present a passion play as an offering to world peace. The Union City iteration has become well known for its innovative and sensitive approach to religious and social issues. In the 1990s, the play featured an African-American actor playing Jesus.
The Park rendition is also recognized for being staged by local community members and produced as part of an important local tradition. Several cast members have been involved for more than 30 years. The current production also includes professional actors in leading roles.
The 2014 Passion Play roster features David Murgittroyd as Jesus, Luisa Sauter as the Virgin Mary, and Barton as Pilate. Other cast members include Joseph Bukovec and Newton Duarte, and an ensemble of more than 20 performers.
Besides Gonzalez, the creative team includes Sauter as musical director.
Maria and David Fricke of Union City have been involved with the Passion Play for years, Maria since 1968, and David, since 1977.
This year David portrays Matthew the Apostle. In the past it has been a High Priest, a Pontius Pilate military adviser, and other roles.
“I do it as a Lenten devotion. I am a Roman Catholic,” Fricke said. “It’s kind of a unique sacrifice for Lent. I give up my time and get to bring the gospel’s good news through theater. I get people to know more about Jesus through a visual, stage medium. Once you’ve been doing for a few years you kind of get attached to it.”
Acting in the play each year also extends his spirituality, as well as increasing his knowledge of stage presentation.
“When I’m doing certain things, like Jesus teaching the Our Father, it brings me closer to God,” he said. “There’s also learning more and experiencing the technical aspects of theater and acting. I love watching the other actors as they’re trying different approaches of the character and arriving at how they’ll ultimately do it.”
Maria, who’s played Mary Magdalene in the past, has smaller roles this year. In the first act, she’s in the ensemble in a “fish and loaves”-like scene. In the second act, she’s “Witness Number Four” against Christ.
Fricke performs because of her devotion to her religion and her God.
“When people say what you give up for Lent, I say, I do the passion play,” she said. “It makes me feel we’re the new apostles, that we’ve spread the word.”
But the Frickes’ participation doesn’t stop there. She is the “prop mistress,” and he’s the assistant prop master.
Arlene Ng, 28, of North Bergen, who has been with the Passion Play for five years, is this time portraying Mary Magdalene. She teaches English as a second language at the Robert Fulton Grammar School in the township.
“I love being a part of the show. I love telling the story of Jesus,” Ng said. “I feel it’s important for the season of Lent to remember that important time in history when we honor the life of Jesus Christ.”
New music and choreography are what are exciting her about this year’s rendition.
“Every year there’s something a little different, which gives the audience another reason to come back and check it out again,” she said. “And it keeps the show relevant to the times.”
The camaraderie with her castmates is also something she thoroughly enjoys.
“We all have been part of the show for years, so we are kind of a family,” Ng said. “We work very well together. And it’s a great experience to be with different parts of the community. We even have professional union actors. It’s great to learn from them.”
Weeknight practices until 10:30 or 11 p.m. can sometimes be trying, but the end result will be fulfilling.
“It’s a lot, but it’s all in anticipation of the show,” she said. “I’m having a very good time.”
Gil Mayol, 34, of Secaucus, and formerly of North Bergen, is somewhat new to the play, involved now in his second production of it.
He plays several roles, including Barack in Sanhedrin. He’s been practicing for nearly two months, and said it’s all been worth it.
“I like the collaboration of so many people coming together to tell the story,” Mayol said. “I find it amazing.”
Interviewed a few days before the first performance, he was itching to get on stage.
“I can’t wait. I think it’s more anxiety at this moment,” he said. “I’m excited about telling the story and being a part of history, of culture. About being able to bring something to life. It’s awesome.”
Sandra Gonzalez, 24, of Bayonne, is performing in the Passion Play for the third year. It’s her second year playing Veronica, a woman who was said to have wiped Jesus’ face with her veil as he carried the cross.
Gonzalez performs in the play for a very important reason.
“I think it sends an important message,” she said. “That there are still people that have such deep faith. For me it’s like a Lenten journey. I have time to reflect on my own faith. I think it’s a good way for me personally to reflect on what the passion is about and remember where my faith came from.”
The first time, Gonzalez didn’t expect the experience to be so moving.
“But it really ended up being a very emotional and moving experience the first year,” she said. “And I wanted to come back for more.”
She said she feels the 100th performance of the Park Passion Play is an important one.
“It definitely shows the community is out there supporting the production, and it stresses the importance of the story as well,” Gonzalez said. “It’s been around for so long, it must be doing something right for the community and for the people who come and support it.”
General admission tickets are $25, students pay $15, and children under 12; $10. Discounted rates are available for groups. Tickets for the student performance are $7 per person.
For more information, or to purchase tickets, call (201) 865-6980 or visit parkpac.org.,
Joseph Passantino may be reached at JoePass@hudsonreporter.com.