I remember when Sensurround first hit movie theaters in the 1970s. Little rumbling speakers under the seats were supposed to transport theatergoers into the midst of disaster -- in that case, to the epicenter of a fictional LA earthquake.
But even '70s cinematic massage therapy can't compare to the surround-sound experience you'll get if you go to TheatreWork's productions of "The Nativity" and "The Passion," a two-play series being performed for its second and last weekend at a warehouse on North Nevada Avenue.
Special effects were sparse in the days when these plays were written, more than a half a millennium ago. And because they didn't necessarily even have theaters in the English countryside where these stories were re-enacted, the players performed in churches, homes, town squares and open fields. As a result, there was little separation between the actors, the action and the audience.
In staging "The Nativity" and "The Passion," UCCS's theater crew took a cue from their old English counterparts, turning the open floor of the North Nevada warehouse into an open town square of sorts.
The staging technique was particularly effective as audience members in a sense became extras who follow Jesus (played by Eric Bosse) around the darkened building, sitting among his disciples and converts on the concrete warehouse floor. (Reserved seats are available, but take the general admission tickets if you can.)
Very often, the effect was downright surprising, such as when the person right behind me turned out to be Judas Iscariot (Tom Paradise), repenting his betrayal of his master. In another instance, the person at my shoulder was a member of the Mystery Singers, a group of Palmer High School chamber singers who broke into lovely, and quite tight, three- and four-part harmony.
When Herod's men pushed their way through the crowd, looking for infants, the effect was downright chilling. The brutality of Roman rule came through profoundly for one standing among the actors who played victim to the empire's wrath.
Of the two, "The Nativity" is a far more interesting play, largely for its humorous and utterly charming tangents that draw the audience back into the drama after more polemic interludes.
Spanning Biblical history from Lucifer's fall to the birth of Christ, "The Nativity" covers some of the Bible's best stories, strung together in a series of skits, the diverse stories underpinned by the mischievous and spiteful manipulations of Satan (played devilishly by Jeremy Moore and David Wild) and the will power of the Lord God (played with appropriate thunder by KRCC radio announcer Jerome Davis).
In between the morality tales and scriptural didactics, however, there's some great comedy. In the shepherds' tale, before three hapless, agricultural engineers can find their way to Jesus's bedside to deliver their gifts, there's the wonderful bit in which a rogue sheep-rustler tries to hide a stolen lamb in a baby's cradle.
"The Passion" is also told with wonderful wit and language. Though it's a far more polemic tale, Bosse as Jesus does an admirable job bringing life to the hardest role ever conceived.
"The Passion" brought out some wonderful performances from Paradise as Iscariot, as well as the four Roman soldiers who nail the moaning, screaming Bosse to the cross.
There were some weak spots in both plays, mostly from younger or less-experienced actors from the UCCS theatre program who spoke their lines too quickly, making it even harder to ken the stilted Middle-English sawings of their various characters.
But, by and large, even those without long track records in old English lingo did an admirable job breathing life into the bitter jibes of the Roman soldiers, the dejection of Adam and Eve, the goofball jests of the three shepherds, or the blind beggars pleading for Christ's mercy.
In short, I heartily recommend both of these plays to anyone looking to get a little more out of Easter than chocolate rabbits and stained eggshells.