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A Passion Play Draws Crowds -- and No Blood

April 03, 2004|William Lobdell | Times Staff Writer

This is hardly Mel Gibson's vision of the Passion.

Jesus is lashed a mere three times, drawing no blood or even welts. During the Crucifixion, audience members are spared the sight of nails being driven into flesh. Instead, they only hear the steady pounding of a hammer. When Jesus is resurrected, six angels in white gowns float down from heaven. They are a soothing presence.

Despite an approach opposite Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" -- or maybe because of it -- the gore-free "The Glory of Easter" at the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove is experiencing the most popular season in its 21-year history.

Ticket sales are 25% above last year's pace, pageant officials said. And "The Glory" is expected to draw more than 50,000 people by the time it closes April 10, Holy Saturday.

This is all part of Passion-mania, which has influenced book sales, video rentals and even cable channel operators who are dusting off copies of Martin Scorsese's l988 film "The Last Temptation of Christ," says Jim Farrelly, a scholar of popular culture at the University of Dayton, a Catholic college in Ohio.

" 'The Passion' has created a bandwagon, and that explains why people are buying more tickets for the Crystal Cathedral," Farrelly said. "It's a ticket on the rapture train."

"The Glory of Easter," which began last week, has been Southern California's highest- profile Passion play for two decades.

The $1.4-million pageant is known internationally for its large-scale production that includes 100 cast members (13 professional actors and the rest volunteers), a soundtrack by the London and Seattle symphony orchestras, a massive set built with five miles of steel undergirding, and live animals -- five horses, two llamas, a water buffalo, a donkey, piglets, peacocks, sheep and goats.

"The Glory" is the companion production to the church's even more elaborate "The Glory of Christmas." Both plays operate slightly in the black from ticket sales, church officials said.

This year, audiences in the nearly 3,000-seat Crystal Cathedral are sure to compare "The Glory of Easter" with "The Passion," something cast members have already done.

"You can get a little jaded and think this is too milquetoast," said David Denman, a Juilliard-trained actor who plays Vitelius, Pilate's top lieutenant. But compared with Gibson's film, he said, " 'The Glory of Easter' is a little more uplifting, more spiritual and has a lot more about Jesus' message."

"The Passion" focuses on the 12 hours leading to the death of Jesus, emphasizing his physical torture at the hands of the Romans. By contrast, "The Glory" covers the final week of Jesus' life and deals with the scourging and Crucifixion quickly and bloodlessly. The 80-minute pageant instead spends much of its time on the deeds and teachings of Jesus, a tack that closely mirrors the Gospels.

"Passion plays are performed so we can get images of Jesus and flesh out the story and feel outraged that they can kill a man who was only doing good," said Dayton's Farrelly.

The lessons include instruction on: what Jesus said are the greatest commandments (to love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself). How to pray (simply). Whether to pay taxes ("Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's."). Punishment ("If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her"). How to be faithful ("Anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it"). And on Jesus' role in heaven and on Earth ("I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.").

A lengthy series of resurrection scenes, with much rejoicing and six angels overhead, serves as the play's finale.

The production remains unchanged from previous years, and marketing of "The Glory" wasn't tweaked to take advantage of "The Passion" bounce, officials said.

"I think both productions meet their own goals," said Paul David Dunn, the 46-year-old author and director of "The Glory."

The upbeat nature of "The Glory" reflects the optimism of the Rev. Robert H. Schuller, founder of the Crystal Cathedral and author of self-help books such as "If It's Going to Be, It's Up to Me." But it also mirrors the differences between Catholicism -- which tends to focus on Christ's suffering -- and Protestantism, which emphasizes the resurrection.

"The message on the whole is one of redemption," Dunn said. "I didn't want to make it gory. I've got four kids [who were young when I first wrote it] and I wanted to be able to watch it with them."

The play, if it were a movie, would be rated G. Only a few thunderclaps would scare toddlers.

Years before the recent arguments over whether "The Passion" movie is anti-Semitic, Dunn's script blunted the chance of a similar controversy by showing in some detail nearly all Jews in a favorable light, except a handful.

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