Best Street Theater
If Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ was too gory for you, consider the Passions of the Philippines. Each spring, during Holy Week or Semana Santa a seven-day celebration culminating in Easter weekend the country's Roman Catholics perform their own ritualized reenactments of the end of Christ's life. Passion plays or senakulos (from the word cenacle, or dining room, and in this case referring to the dining room where Jesus held the Last Supper) were originally brought by the Spanish in the 16th century. Half a millennium later, they are wondrously alive, and the ones held on Good Friday in the sleepy town of Samal located on Luzon's Bataan peninsula are excellent exemplars of the form.
Multiple senakulos take place in Samal's neighborhoods. The staging in the Calaguiman quarter is an elaborate hundred-strong procession, complete with centurions on horseback and a host of characters from the Passion story, including Judas, Herod, Pontius Pilate, Mary Magdalene, the Virgin Mary and an entourage of weeping women, not to mention Jesus himself all trailed by a marching band. Part medieval-mystery play, part parade, the show winds through the town's acacia and narra tree-lined streets, taking up a new location for each scene and picking up new audience members along the way. Jesus' whole story is told, from the Last Supper to his crucifixion (mercifully, real nails aren't used in Calaguiman, as they sometimes are elsewhere in the Philippines).
The viewers are as engaging as the spectacle itself. People spill out of windows, climb onto rooftops and clamber onto each other's shoulders. The streets blossom with brightly colored parasols, and hawkers of icy coconut drinks do a fierce trade. Audience participation is exuberant: when Pilate asks the crowd whether to free Jesus or Barabbas, the actors shout "Barabbas!" on cue, while onlookers cry "Kristo!" a spontaneous departure from script. At the end of the day, of course, the plot remains the same, but this being the Philippines the tragic ending is shrugged off, leaving only the atmosphere of a giant, traveling street party.
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