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By Margaret Deefholts

It isn't every day that I get to meet Jesus, but this afternoon I stand in a coulee surrounded by craggy ochre-coloured hills, listening to him and a couple of his disciples chatting to [Blind] Bartimaeus. Dust devils dance in the breeze, and in the shade of the Jerusalem Wall, a donkey stands patiently awaiting his owner.

Hard to believe this isn't the Holy Land, but I'm actually in Drumheller, Alberta, on the set of The Canadian Badlands Passion Play and the desolate surroundings are so like the Judean landscape that it borders on the surreal.

Randall Wiebe, the Passion Play's Artistic Director, (he also fills the role of Blind Bartimaeus) is taking me on a behind-the-scenes tour just a few hours before this Season's Opening Night.

It's a hands-on production, with everyone in count-down mode. Managing Director, Scott Evans flips hamburgers on a grille-no loaves and fishes tonight, but his beef patties in a bun during intermission will work just as well. Stephen Waldschmidt who plays Jesus this year, hurriedly catches up with Judas bent on some eleventh hour errand, and both of them disappear behind a rocky outcrop.

As befits a professional show which has been in place for 15 years, the production staff are veterans. Designer Deb Lawton, wearing paint-speckled overalls talks about designing historically authentic garments for over 350 performers, many of whom play multiple roles. "Sometimes it means three different costumes per actor," Lawton says. "A challenge, but a fun one!"

Wiebe, a burly, shaggy-haired guy, points out that despite the size of the amphitheatre which sprawls across four acres, no amplifiers are used in the performance-amazingly enough, the bowl's natural acoustics are such that no matter where you are not a word of dialogue is muffled.

The heat of the day has begun to dissipate as I settle into my seat that evening. The audience's hum of conversation dies away as the scene in front of us erupts into action - and we are in the midst of Judean life over two centuries ago, with Matthew the Tax Collector (Tim Hildebrand) as narrator. Roman soldiers some on foot, others on horseback, processions of people, merchants leading donkey-carts, and children laughing and playing tag around their parents, all swarm across a dramatic backdrop of jutting rocks and scrub covered hills. It is sheer spectacle. Then a hush falls as the crowds part and a slim figure clad in a simple blue robe stands before John the Baptist at the River Jordan.

From that moment on, Waldschmidt's portrayal of Jesus captures my imagination, as no other depiction has done in the past. Here the Saviour of Mankind is no aloof icon of sanctity, but a warm individual, whose spontaneous compassion reaches out to all those who come to him. Each time he performs a miracle, Jesus beams with delight, often triumphantly hugging the newly cured person and family members. Whether romping with kids, laughing with friends at festive occasions, preaching the Sermon on the Mount, or feeding his audience of five-thousand with an abundance of loaves and fishes, this is an approachable Jesus who radiates kindliness and generosity. A man of abiding joy, love and peace.

Then, like the dimming evening sky around us at the amphitheatre, the twilight hours of Jesus's life begin to unfold: the Pharisees outrage at the Nazarene's Messianic claims, and the inevitable roar of "Crucify Him" in response to Pilate's appeal to the crowd. As Jesus prophesies, Peter betrays him thrice, but again, this is a Man of compassion-as he turns and looks at his cowardly disciple, there is no accusation in His eyes; just sorrowful understanding. The Way of the Cross processional and the crucifixion itself is almost too agonizing to watch, and several people around me are openly weeping.

The bowl of sky over the Badlands is crimson and gold, and without wishing to give away the superbly choreographed finale, underscored by the soaring voices of the choir, I join in the tumultuous standing applause as the music dies away.

I walk to my car with Randall Wiebe's words echoing in my mind. "I've been associated with the Badlands Passion Play for more than fifteen years…but I never tire of it. As the opening scene unfolds, so too does the drama, the beauty, the mystery, and the power of what is for me, the greatest story ever told."

The Drumheller Passion Play is a three hour outdoor event and runs for six days in July (usually in tandem with the Calgary Stampede). Parking is free.

Tickets: Adults $30; Children 12 & under $15; Seniors (65+) & Students (13-18) $25; Family (2 Adults/2 Children) $80.
Contact: Email:
Phone: 1-403-823-2001
Fax: 1-403-823-8170
More information:
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1. "Heavenly Father" (photo: Margaret Deefholts)
2. Romping with children (photo: Margaret Deefholts)
3. Curing the Sick (Photo: Courtesy Badlands Passion Play)
4. Rejoicing at the Marriage of Cana (Photo:Courtesy Badlands Passion Play)
5. Salome's Dance of the Seven Veils (Photo:Courtesy Badlands Passion Play)
6. Jesus with Narrator, Matthew the Tax Collector (Photo:Courtesy Badlands Passion Play)
7. Crucifixion (photo: Margaret Deefholts)
8. A rapt audience (photo: Margaret Deefholts)


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