Mama taught me to never impose the subject of religion upon polite conversation and never mock the sincere spiritual beliefs of others. In respect to her wisdom -- despite my heathen leanings -- I will refrain from indulging in reflexive flippancy in reviewing New Life Church's The Thorn.
To be fair, the nine-year-old show is a crowd pleaser, and the crowd numbers in the thousands. (The mega-church's theater seats 5,500.) The production cast itself counts 1,000 inspired and inspiring volunteers, including cast and crew from churches throughout the city, as well as a Jewish make-up artist.
As a passion play, The Thorn should not be subject to mainstream theater criticism. True theater, like all art forms, influences without sermonizing, but good passion plays are not intended to be subtle.
Introduced by the Roman Catholic Church in the Middle Ages to teach the Gospel to illiterate peasants, passion plays depend on emotional and sensational appeal, and, on both counts, The Thorn works.
The production values of The Thorn are nothing short of dazzling. Costumes, upbeat contemporary Christian music and lighting -- not to mention acrobatic and pyrotechnical flourishes, including angels tumbling overhead -- surely enthrall the originally intended audience of youth, weaned at the cyber-breast of visual excitement. There was so much colorful, physical action on the circuslike stage, I longed for a spontaneous bout of ADD to accommodate it.
The play opens with a stunning interpretive dance depicting the creation of the universe, followed by John the disciple (played by author and producer John Bolin) exiled in his old age on the island of Patmos and leading the audience through personal memories of Jesus' life and death. Reminiscence precedes seamless changes of setting and scene. Given the cast size and complexity of action, director Rob Stennett's organization is impressive.
To its credit, The Thorn does not force us to flinch at anticipated gore and vicarious sadism ( la Mel Gibson's The Passion); it balances the harsh truths of a suffering Christ with depictions of a child Christ, teaching Christ, healing Christ and resurrected Christ.
Interesting attempts at audience interaction include cast members costumed as Roman Centurions on horseback outside and marching inside before the performance; offering the audience chunks of bread during the Miracle of Loaves and Fishes; and Jesus (Christian Metzler) dragging his cross down theater aisles before the staged crucifixion.
Playwright Bolin hails from theatrical parents and is committed to "telling this story in such a way that people enjoy it, however they believe," an objective that is met by using every tool at his command effectively.
The experience lost momentum for us only when Senior Pastor Ted Haggard interrupted the final scene to lead the audience in a prayer and a promise to "submit" to the Bible's "domination"; likewise, we were disappointed by an earlier promotion of religious books and musical CDs, diluting the play's power with marketing.
At its best, The Thorn is an extravaganza for the faithful, a Cecil B. DeMille feast for the senses after a lean Lent. At its worst, it can seem to more cynical souls like the Gospel according to the World Wide Wrestling Federation -- a seedy devil talking smack about the Messiah in an electronically distorted Darth Vader voice until he gets his comeuppance to the exuberant cheers of fans around the ring.
Spare me the invitation to have my picture taken after the play with Pastor Ted.
You had me at the tumbling angels.
-- Rebekah Shardy
New Life Church Theater, north side of the church at 11025 Highway 83
Thursday-Friday, March 24-25, 7 p.m.; Saturday, March 26, 3 p.m. and 7 p.m.
Tickets: $9, order online at www.thethorn.net or call 278-3399.