Bus tours are expected to come from as far as Tennessee to see the critically acclaimed Passion Play at the Park Performing Arts Center in Union City, which opens this weekend.
The Passion Play chronicles Jesus Christ’s last five days, from Palm Sunday to Easter. It has been performed in Oberammergau, Germany since 1634, and is still performed there today. The Union City version was first presented in 1915 by a group of German and Swiss immigrants who modeled it on the German version.
Cast and crew have been putting in six-hour days of rehearsal each week since January, forging ahead even as snowstorms set them back.
“A lot of people who come see it as a pilgrimage or rekindling of faith.” – Carl Gonzalez
Tradition and tweaking
“This year, a lot of things have changed and I think it’s refreshing,” said ensemble member Zee Oliveira of Newark. “It brings something new to us and to the audience that comes back. It’s so much more emotional; it penetrates.”
Oliveira is participating with her three daughters.
“The cast is wonderful,” said Production Manager Sergio Cruz. “Everyone has their own stories to tell.”
The cast has a range of ages and backgrounds.
Thirteen-year-old Priscilla Arevalo of Union City is in the ensemble for the third year and is playing the angel of consolation for the first time. “It’s a new experience and I like it,” she said. “I have more of a leading role and can practice being on stage.”
Arevalo said that she was shy when she began participating in the play three years ago, but has found herself opening up more.
Arlene Ng of North Bergen is playing Mary Magdalene in her first year with the production. She responded to a casting call in The Reporter. Ng has been inspired by the slow motion in the Via Dolorosa scene, which is a new effect in the production this year.
“You get to see the emotion,” said Ng. “It’s so much more real and impactful.”
Karla Cruz of West New York is excited to be back for a second year. “I really liked it and had a fun experience [last year],” said Cruz, a sophomore at New Jersey City University. “It’s fun to see the changes. I think it’s going to be really effective for the audience.”
Right direction for tradition
Gary Schalhoub of Morris County has seen the play through many changes and performed most of the parts in his 48 years with the production, from Judas to Jesus. This year he will play Nicodemus.
“It’s just a family tradition for me,” said Schalhoub, who was first introduced to the play by his aunt when he was 9. “This is the only play I’ve ever done. I learned from all the people that came before me.”
Director Carl Gonzalez, who donates his time to the show, kept close to tradition when he began directing four years ago but has become more comfortable updating it over time.
“There’s a really big responsibility to keep this show going because it’s the oldest continuous production,” said Gonzalez. “A lot of people who come see it as a pilgrimage or rekindling of faith.”
A teacher at the Newark Arts High School, playwright, and a director, Gonzalez said that theatre and religion converge as a ministry within the show. “In the beginning I stayed away from the ministry of it,” he said. “But I realized people want the connection of the ministry. It’s more contemporary for people to show their faith now.”
Park PAC Executive Director John Lewis said the play is especially interesting because of the combination of people devoted to the project. Over 40 actors are involved on stage, plus support from the crew behind the scenes.
“It’s fun because it’s such an interesting array of professionals and community people,” said Lewis.
Performances dates are March 13, 14, 20, 21, and 27 at 2 p.m. Sign language interpretation will be available at the March 21 show. For tickets or more information call (201) 865-6980, ext. 10, or visit www.parkpac.org.
Lana Rose Diaz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.