Filmed ‘Easter Mysteries’ musical brings the Passion to life

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BOSTON – As Easter approaches, films about the life and death of Jesus regularly pop up, and older movies from years ago get a second look. Many of these are epics, often featuring actors speaking with British accents, a clear indication of a Roman period piece (think “Gladiator”), a heroic tale, or both.

But a different kind of Easter film will hit theaters for one day only on Tuesday. “Easter Mysteries,” which tells the story of Christ’s last days, from his betrayal and crucifixion to the resurrection, through music. Producers of the movie filmed the musical production in front of live audiences, using 10 cameras. The techniques give the film a “real-time” feel, eliminating some of the distance between viewers and actors.

The script is written in modern English and the sets are sparse, inviting moviegoers to engage memories of their own experiences to relate to the story, writer, composer and lyricist John O’Boyle said in a recent interview.

“I wanted to loosen this story from telling people what to see and allow people to take from their experience; not to tell them what to think, but to allow them to have their own experience of it,” O’Boyle said.

Director Daniel Goldstein, who received the $100,000 Kleban Prize for Musical Theatre in January as the genre’s most promising librettist, agrees.

“What’s exciting about the theater is the less you put on stage, the more it is open to audience interpretation – the audience is required to be part of the creation of the story,” Goldstein said in a separate interview. A librettist, sometimes called a musical’s book writer, provides the underlying narrative structure, including determining where songs will go and what they will be about, as well as the dialogue and action that connects them, according to Playbill.

“Easter Mysteries” began as a simple one-act play O’Boyle wrote for his church, but quickly took on a life of its own. In its many iterations, “Easter Mysteries” has been performed in a medieval cathedral in Wales, in an off-Broadway theater inside New York’s St. Clement’s Episcopal Church and in Baltimore’s Episcopal cathedral.

Writer O’Boyle said he strove to show that politicians of the day were responsible for the death of Jesus.

This comes across in the film during the trial scene, where no less than three politicians pass the buck (if you will), declaring that Jesus isn’t under their jurisdiction.

The movie also makes an effort to portray Christ’s disciples as real people.

“The piece gives a lot of humanity to the story, to these mythic creatures. It brings them down to human level,” actor P.J. Griffith, who plays Judas, said in an interview.

“I really wanted to look at these characters and make them people that get up in the morning and have certain dreams and expectations, and some things happen, and some don’t, and some things happen that are better,” O’Boyle said. The characters “don’t have foreknowledge and stumble through life just like we do.”

That humanization extends all the way to the portrayal of Judas.

“It has become a challenge to come through the cliché of Judas as the selfish snake,” Griffith said, reflecting on O’Boyle’s characterization. “The way Judas is written is he’s looking out for his own best interest and what he thinks is right.”

“He’s a very conflicted character,” Griffith added. “Judas thinks Jesus is leading them astray, and he doesn’t want to watch his friends be led astray.”

The story is told from the perspective of Peter, one of the 12 apostles, as he wrestles with the guilt he feels after he famously betrays Jesus, declaring he does not know Jesus three times before a rooster crows. Throughout the film, Peter struggles to forgive himself, even as other characters – even Judas, at one point – remind him how Jesus always forgave them.

“This version of the story is about the decisions we make about how we treat our fellow humans, what we do and how we behave,” Goldstein said, “How we find ourselves responsible for our own choices, about the nature of forgiveness.”

“This movie is about tolerance and love and forgiveness,” Goldstein said.

The casting choices also helped give the musical a more 21st century feel.

“It was cast without any attempt to get to the truth of the Middle East,” Griffith said, meaning that there was no attempt to cast exclusively people of Middle Eastern origins in order to make the musical faithful to the story’s historical context.

“Jesus is black, and we have an entire palette of racial diversity in the cast,” Griffith said, noting that racial issues have lately become heated in theater and Hollywood.

“It was done with the right vibes – pulled a lot of people out of the New York theater world,” Griffith said. “It was another attempt to take self-righteousness out of the story.”

“Easter Mysteries” will be shown at 7 p.m. in these New England theaters: Regal Fenway (Boston), Showcase Legacy Place (Dedham, Massachusetts), Lisbon 12 (Jewett City, Connecticut) and Londonderry 10 (Londonderry, New Hampshire).