Most people today (myself included) have an absence of ritual in their lives, and never is this more apparent than at this time of year--when Catholics worship in specifically orchestrated ways almost every day of the week and Jews observes a 3000-year-old tradition. Dzieci, an experimental theatre group dedicated to pursuing the sacred through drama, has, in a way, combined both these time-honored religious rituals into one.
A Passion, adapted and directed by Dzieci ensemble member Matt Mitler, is a ritualistic performance of the Easter story as told in Matthew, described as "a dramatic choral liturgy unbound." Incorporating Hebraic song and elements of Jewish worship, the story is told by a six-person cast, dressed as Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto: the backdrop against which this retelling of the ancient story takes place. (In terms of actual setting, I saw it performed in a sparse, darkened room in the Center at West Park, once a historic church, which set the mood beautifully.) Appropriately, A Passion has become an ingrained ritual for Dzieci: this year marks their 10th anniversary performing it.
Actors read the tale from a Torah-like scroll while the rest of the ensemble performs it. They take turns portraying the different characters in the story, with a white shawl signifying Yeshua (all names used are the original Hebrew versions). Even an audience member was called upon to portray Yeshua at one point--much to her dismay--for the performance, as a ritual, is participatory: we're taught a Hebrew chant to sing at the beginning and end of the service, invited to kiss the "Torah" and partake of the bread and wine Yeshua gives to his disciples at the Last Supper. As we're close to the action and there's no stage (at least, not in the venue where I saw it), it's sometimes uncomfortably intimate.
Or rather, it would be if you're uncomfortable with immersive theatre and if the performers themselves weren't so dang friendly--greeting you with "Shalom" as you walk through the door and laughingly lamenting the absence of any cash box or front of house staff. As it was, I thought it was fantastic. To continue in a personal vein a bit longer, I realize some people might have an issue with a show that applies Jewish ceremonial practice to the story of Christ, and maybe if I weren't a half-Jewish Christian, I would think the same; but because I am, A Passion seemed to speak uniquely to me. Ritual attracts me: I treasure what it can teach me about my own faith and how to approach the divine.
As actors read, sang, chanted, danced, ate, and drank, I experienced the story like never before: as something simple yet profound, personal yet universal, mythic and beautiful. A Passion also demonstrated to me how the performance of ritual can build and strengthen communities. At the end of the performance, two women knelt on either end of a black bench, upon which sat the rolled up scroll wrapped in Yeshua's white shawl. Each ensemble member, in that moment, was portraying Mary at the tomb, and as we were invited to approach and touch the symbolic body of Christ--the Word personified--I overheard an audience member ask one of the women, "Are you Mary?" She smiled. "We all are."
'A Passion' runs through April 7th in various venues. For more information about 'A Passion' and Dzieci, visit dziecitheatre.org.