Saturday, February 21, 2004

Local play sensitive to critics

By Karen Vance
Enquirer contributor

In the local Passion play, Randy Marksbery portrays Jesus.
The Cincinnati Enquirer/TONY JONES

PLEASANT RIDGE - Don Schlosser of Northside doesn't have an Oscar for best director. But he does have one thing in common with Mel Gibson: A desire to share the story of Jesus.

Admittedly, the crowd Schlosser will reach as director of the 87th season of the St. John Passion Play will be smaller than the one Gibson will reach with his The Passion of The Christ. But Schlosser says he is profoundly concerned with the play's impact on non-Christians.

"I'm not one for censorship, but there is a responsibility, especially on something that can be as explosive as this, to think about what you're doing," he said. "If people walk out of our play and say that the Jews killed Jesus, then we have not accomplished our goal."

The Passion Play is taken from the four Gospels and chronicles the last week of Jesus' life - from his entry into Jerusalem to the Resurrection. It is produced by more than 100 interdenominational volunteers from all over Greater Cincinnati and is the second-oldest such play in the United States.

It has met its share of controversy.

But Schlosser and the cast have worked over the years to address concerns about anti-Semitism - especially in scenes like mobs calling for Jesus' death.

Pleasant Ridge Presbyterian Church, 5950 Montgomery Road
Feb. 29, 2 p.m.
March 7, 2 p.m.
March 14, 2 and 6:30 p.m.
St. Augustine Catholic Church, 1839 Euclid Ave., Covington
March 21, 2 p.m.
March 28, 2 p.m.
April 3, 7 p.m.
April 4, 2 p.m.
Reservations: (859) 293-0129 or
And as for violence, cast members feel it is appropriate for a child of 8.

For Randy Marksberry, 53, of Springdale, who has played Jesus in the Passion Play for 10 years, the message remains important. Each word he speaks comes from the Bible.

"I want people to walk away with a sense that Jesus loves them, and he does care about them and their problems," Marksberry said. "His pain and suffering was for us."

Born in Over-the-Rhine

The play began in 1917 at St. John the Baptist Church in Over-the-Rhine as a prayer for the safety of the church's soldiers in World War I. It was modeled after a production in Oberammergau, Bavaria, which began in the 17th century.

Locally, the first objections to the play came in the 1950s amid evidence the Oberammergau production was used by Adolf Hitler as Nazi propaganda to justify the Holocaust. In response, the script was amended.

In 1991, members of Cincinnati's Jewish community expressed concerns about its portrayal of Jews.

"We never meant it as anti-Semitic, but that doesn't absolve us from our responsibility to make sure it doesn't negatively impact a people in the future," Schlosser said.

So Richard Parker, now the assistant director of the play, met with Rev. Ronald Ketteler, chair of the theology department at Thomas More College. "If it couldn't be brought into line with the (U.S. Conference of Catholic) Bishops' guidelines, they wouldn't have continued to use that space," said Ketteler.

The group made 54 script changes, ranging from costume to crowd actions. And this year, the production made an addition to show the Jewishness of Jesus and his disciples - Hebrew prayer at the Last Supper, Parker said.

Certainly the biggest transformation has been the role of Pontius Pilate, one Schlosser played before being the director.

"He has changed from a man who caves to the will of the people to one who is in control and manipulative of the crowd," he said.

James Shapiro, a professor of English Literature at Columbia University, has been studying passion plays. "The Pontius Pilate portrayals remain central to the evolution of the play," he said. "He is historically portrayed as a reluctant crucifier."

The other often-cited controversial issue is the portrayal of the mob that calls for Jesus' death, he said.

"As a person who is Jewish and loves and studies passion plays, watching a crowd of bloodthirsty Jews calling for Jesus' death is chilling," Shapiro said. "It comes down to, 'How do Americans see their neighbors who don't share their religion?' "

Local expert Michael Cook hasn't seen the play since its last revision. He finds the bishops' guidelines reasonable.

"The problem is when people, like Mel Gibson, don't follow them," said Cook, a professor of Judeo-Christian studies at Hebrew Union College.

And as for the answer to the question that has driven controversy - "Who killed Jesus?" - those with the St. John Passion Play have a simple answer: We all did.

"It's not a play about what 'they' did to our Lord. It's about what our Lord did for us," Parker said.

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