Reviewed by Laureen F. Guenther -
Canadian Badlands Passion Play in Drumheller, Alberta, is presenting seven performances from July 13 to 22, in this, its 19th season.
This year’s play re-enacts the age-old story of Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection with a new script based on the Gospel of John, a new musical score, and a newly-constructed set.
Well, the constructed temple and courts are new. The natural amphitheatre and the surrounding circle of knob-shaped hills – the setting for the rural villages of Israel – are as old as the story itself.
The play opens with the first words of the Gospel of John, narrated by an “Old Man” (Brian Jensen) who returns often to observe and comment. While the central events of the story focus on Jesus (Stephen Waldschmidt) and a few other characters, the rest of the 200 actors remain involved as wedding guests, temple leaders, worshippers, soldiers, gossips, followers and skeptics. At every moment, the Passion Play gives us many things to watch.
As I watched these people go about their everyday lives, I was struck by Jesus’ humanity. Though many of the people whose lives intersect with His do eventually realize He is much more than an ordinary man, He remains among them as fully human. He laughs and He cries. He dances and He gets angry. He makes friends and encounters enemies. He loves people and enjoys life.
The melodies of the new musical score carry Psalm-like lyrics, conveying joy and grief and worship. Much of the music is a cappella, with occasional violin, drum, recorder, and oboe. The music is sweet and contagious; during the intermission, I heard a child in the audience humming one of the themes. In the days since, I’ve found myself doing the same.
The one element that surprised me about the Passion Play is that Jesus’ resurrection is played off-stage. The Old Man narrates, and we see broken-hearted Mary making her way to the tomb, but we don’t see Mary’s face-to-face encounter with her risen Lord.
I love this Passion Play. It speaks to me of Jesus’ deep affection for the people around Him – for people who are young, people who are sick, people who are disabled, people filled with heartache. It speaks to me of His love for me.
In its more than 100 outdoor performances, the Passion Play has been cancelled only three or four times due to weather. My first visit on opening weekend was one of those rare occasions. Just after intermission, when a light sprinkle suddenly became a downpour, it was announced the play would be paused. A few minutes later, it was cancelled.
Because the cancellation occurred before the trial of Jesus, ticket-holders could choose to return for a performance during the current season or the next season. We are very glad we took a few more hours out of our schedule to return the next night. It was worth every minute.
Rain or shine, heat or wind, the friendly Passion Play volunteers and staff serve the playgoers well, in roles behind and before the scenes. All but a handful of the 200 actors are volunteers, and many professionals and volunteer actors come back year after year, as do those in wardrobe, set design, music, directing and stage management. On our second night, Walter Albrecht, who plays Laban, was recognized for giving his 100th volunteer performance.
Walter Albrecht – 100 Performances!
Walter Albrecht, a Drumheller native, wanted to be involved with the Passion Play its very first year. Then in April, he broke both his legs, so he had to wait. A year later, in 1995, he was there, ready to serve.
Walter had intended to be a greeter, but when he walked in to volunteer, the people conducting auditions called to him. “Hey! Come over here! We need you!” He was persuaded to act that year, and he’s been acting in the Passion Play ever since.
18 years later, on Sunday, July 15, Walter Albrecht acted in his 100th performance.
That first year, he played a Canaanite farmer. Another year, he stood at the foot of the cross and shouted accusations at Jesus. For a few years, he played Annas, the second high priest; that was his favorite role. This year, he is Laban, a teaching Pharisee.
In his 18 years of acting, Walter has only missed one weekend of performances, in 2007, when his wife was in hospital, not long before she died. She urged him to perform anyway, but, he remembers, he told her, “You’re more important.”
Nevertheless, the Passion Play has become an Albrecht family affair. An older granddaughter was in the play for a time; now his eight-year-old granddaughter, Starla, is in her third year.
Every year, Walter shaves off his shoulder-length beard after Passion Play season. He grows it again until February 3, when he shaves it for Cut and Shave for Cancer. In three years, he’s raised nearly $5400 simply by growing and shaving his beard. In March, he starts growing the beard again, so it’ll be ready for the Passion Play.
At 77 years old, Mr. Albrecht hinted this may be his final year in the production, but he wouldn’t say that for sure. “Lord willing,” he says.
We say, Lord willing, he’ll perform for years to come.
I urge you to see the Canadian Badlands Passion Play, whether you travel a few hours or a couple of days. For tickets or information see www.canadianpassionplay.com.
Drumheller is an hour and a half from Calgary or Red Deer; two and a half from Edmonton; or five from Saskatoon. Come prepared for all kinds of weather, bring insect repellent, and enjoy the show. Learn about Drumheller accommodations at http://www.traveldrumheller.com/places-to-stay.html
Laureen Guenther lives in Alberta and writes book and play reviews for Maranatha News. Laureen is also a teacher, a special needs ministry volunteer, and a devoted auntie. Read her blog at http://reeniesresources.blogspot.com.
(Photo by: Laureen Guenther)