Union City's Passion Park Theater celebrates its 89th season of classic production
by Dylan M. Archilla Reporter Staff Writer
Mar 26, 2004 | 735 views | 0 0 comments | 9 9 recommendations | email to a friend | print
"This play has survived."

So is the declaration of Park Theater Executive Director and Producer Father Kevin Ashe when talking about the Park Theater's The Passion Play. Begun in 1915, at Holy Family Church, and moving to the Park Theater 16 years later, the play has endured the vicissitudes of social change and the hard realities of economics and become not only a staple of North Hudson, but a performance that draws crowds from all over.

The Park Theater's Passion Play - a dramatization of the last days of Jesus Christ - is acknowledged to be the oldest Passion Play in the United States, but when Ashe came to the Park Theater in the early 80's, he saw a Passion Play that needed a significant amount of tweaking.

"My artistic vision dictated it. Many Passion Plays were, frankly, anti-Semitic and showed a great disrespect for the Jewish religion," said Ashe.

"Sadly, passion plays began to reflect the anti-Semitism of the times, often presenting a distorted view of Jesus' life and death and leading to the accusation that Jews were 'Christ Killers' guilty of deicide," The Passion Play playbill reads. "Passion Plays presented a real contempt of the Jews and their religion."

The fact that this is mentioned in the theater's literature is telling and is something that Ashe was quick to change when he took over the reigns of the theater.

Said Ashe, "Our Passion Play is considered a model of respecting both the Christians and the Jews. It's a win/win situation."

"The recent release of the movie The Passion of the Christ has reawakened the specter of anti-Semitism in Passion Plays," said The Passion Play Director Meryl Tanner. "It is almost ironic that the ultimate bridge between the faiths - the son of man who came to unify mankind - is at the center of this controversy."

Certainly, Mel Gibson's ultra-violent film depicting the last 12 hours of Christ's life has brought a new spotlight onto Passion Plays. One would think that it would have a positive effect on the Park Theater production, but the opposite has actually happened.

"The movie is hurting us," said Ashe. "Many people who have reserved tickets in advance are opting to go see the movie instead. A group that would have 50 people in it now will have 30 or 40. "

Ashe added that he sees an advantage to taking in the Park Theater's live version of the story.

"To me, the movie can leave you more on a down note." said Ashe. "I'd like to think our production is happier and inspiring. The movie and the play are two totally different experiences. You can bring children to our production."

The theater

It is next to impossible to talk about any production at the Park Theater without talking about the theater itself. Built in 1931, the Park Theater has become the center of the arts culture that exists to a greater or lesser degree in North Hudson.

"Performing arts centers have become the lynchpins for many urban centers," said Ashe. "We're really the only theater of this size (it seats 1400) and this quality left in this area."

When Ashe arrived in the early 80s, he immediately prevailed upon the leaders of the Holy Family Church, who ran the theater, that they needed to make any moves necessary to keep the theater. So, in 1983, the Holy Family Church set up a not-for-profit corporation to run the theater, and though there have been ups and downs, the theater continues to grow and thrive.

In fact, a short tour of the upper floor of the theater, revealed a labyrinth of rooms presently being used mainly for storage. Rehearsal space, dance and art studios and the like are Ashe's big plans for the area. If Ashe has anything to do with it, the Park Theater will become a multi-functional all purpose arts hub.

The Passion Play is presented every Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. until April 17. Anyone interested in tickets can call 201-865-6980 ext. 20.
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