St. Thomas students to present Passion play April 7-8

Some 50 University of St. Thomas and St. John Vianney Seminary students — including cast, crew and choir — are putting the finishing touches on a Passion play that they will present on Palm Sunday weekend.

Two performances are scheduled: 7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, April 7 and 8, in O’Shaughnessy Educational Center auditorium at St. Thomas, 2115 Summit Ave. They are free and open to the public.

St. John Vianney seminarians and St. Thomas students Alex Zenthoefer, a senior from Evansville, Ind., and David Fischer, a senior from St. Paul; and Joann Martyn, a senior from Glendale, Ill., direct this year’s play, which features St. Thomas junior Luke Searcy, of Calhoun, Ken., as Jesus, and senior Laura Spaeth, of Sleepy Eye, Minn., as Mary.

Some of the music for the play was composed by St. John Vianney seminarian and St. Thomas student Shane Deman, a junior from Sioux City, Iowa.

Much of the play’s dialogue comes directly from various Gospels, including scenes from Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, the Agony in the Garden, the trial and the crucifixion.

The Passion play is a religious drama of medieval origin dealing with the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ. The earliest dramatic representations of the crucifixion, in Latin verse, were given early in the 13th century in France and Flanders. One hundred years later, Passion plays were performed by societies of amateur players in both German and French. At the height of their popularity in the mid-15th century, they had developed into elaborate productions of three days or more. During the Renaissance, many of the Passion plays degenerated into mere popular entertainments; many were forbidden by ecclesiastical authorities and many more were suppressed after the Reformation.

Of the Passion plays performed in modern times, the best known dates from 1634, given every 10 years by the residents of Oberammergau, Germany, in the Bavarian Alps. The play is said to fulfill a vow the village made after it was spared an epidemic of plague. It remains an entirely local production, with villagers taking all the parts and singing in the chorus. Traditional Passion plays also have been revived in villages in Austria, Spain and the Netherlands.

While some university seniors have returned from sunny spring breaks just in time for a “senior slide” before graduation, Zenthoefer, his co-directors and the play’s production crew are busy putting the finishing touches on set building, staging details and costumes (some of which have been lent by the Guthrie Theatre). They began planning the Passion play last fall, but every theatrical production is fraught with last-minute details. “I’m a little busier than I wanted to be right now,” Zenthoefer laughed.