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Passion Play, an epic story

by Keri Vermeulen

An epic, true story of faith, hope and love is blossoming among the hoodoos and the coulees in the rocky hills of the Canadian Badlands region of Alberta. The unique landscape provides a natural setting and stage for a theatrical experience of the Gospel of Luke.

The acclaimed Canadian Bandlands Passion Play (CBPP), in Drumheller Alberta, is now in its 24th year telling of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. It follows the themes of faith, hope and love, as seen and experienced through the eyes of Peter (faith); Mary the Mother of Jesus (hope); and Jesus Christ (love). Using top-notch technical equipment, this year’s production includes voice-overs that allow the audience to get inside the thoughts of the actors.

“We’ve never done this before. We’re doing voice overs – we have a very unobtrusive sound system,” shares the theatre company’s Executive Director Vance Neudorf. “When Peter walks on the stage in the opening act, you get inside his head and you hear his thoughts: ‘Is it possible for a man to drown in empty? Where are you now?’ And that’s kind of the impetus for getting inside people’s minds as they call out to God and say ‘Where are You?’”

The biggest passion play in Canada (and among the biggest in the world) CBPP strives to present the gospel story with both excellence and relevance. Playing the role of Jesus, Vancouver-based actor Giovanni Mocibob embodies those two values well in his approach to playing the Saviour of the world. Rather than approach the part as playing the role of ‘God’, Mocibob plays the role of ‘Man’ – a much more accessible character for the audience.

“It seems to me that the approach is, as a human, to approach Him as a human – being fully man. If you played him as God, and He’s just all knowing, and just proclaiming things all the time … He would come across almost disconnected from the people and not as caring,” shares Mocibob. “So I think He needs to be human in order for people to really identify with it.”

Mocibob draws deeply on the fully human side of Jesus to play some of the most difficult times in His earthly life with relevance. He says the temptation in the wilderness is highly relatable by approaching it as Jesus, the Man. “How many things are we tempted to as humans and we fail?” Mocibob asks.

This visually stunning passion play starts at the beginning – with a beautiful and moving genealogy from the Gospel of Luke, and the Angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary. “We start from the get-go and we fit the whole thing in,” enthuses Neudorf, adding there are 285 new costumes this year, including new Gabriel costume that includes a 10-foot wingspan. Six directors are working on the show, with 180 actors and extras, and even some livestock, including a horse, a donkey and a dog. “It’s an orchestrated marvel to see this thing come to pass. There are people who don’t even know the story, and they’ll come and see this because the artistry is great and they’ll see this great message.”

CBPP attracts about 12,000 people to nine performances in the outdoor amphitheatre. The audience comes from Alberta, British Columbia and all over the world.  “More and more people from the Lower Mainland are coming up,” Neudorf says. “There are more bus tours that are coming and saying this is a ‘must-do.’ It’s becoming a bit of a pilgrimage that people are saying you have to see once in your life, at least.”

At least once in your life, indeed. As lead actor Mocibob puts it, seeing the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection on a live theatre stage can be impacting for both the long-time Christian, as well as the curious. “It’s neat to see it come to life, because you can read it on the page, and if you grow up as a Christian, a lot of stuff becomes quite rote and familiar, you can just say ‘oh yeah that’s what I believe’ and go on with your life,” Mocibob explains. “But to see it in front of you, lived out by actors, reconnects you to the story and to the journey. It’s pretty epic in scale.”

The Canadian Badlands Passion Play runs over three weekends in July: 7,8,9, and 14,15,16 and 21,22,23.,

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