EASTER, 1998

BY NICHOLAS ARNOLD

In 1998, Max Hart knew his turn as Jesus of Nazareth would be a game-changer for his career.


He was eight years old.


   Passion Plays were on the rise at the time; resurrected from obscurity thanks to increasingly
impressive theatrical technology. No longer were performances reserved for church basements or
legion halls with fluorescent lighting setting the mournful mood. Thanks to strobes, fog machines, and
churches that seemed more like small-scale entertainment venues, the production value of Nativity and
Passion Plays were, in a word, incredible. Of course, it was the Passion that interested Max. He found it
far more interesting than the Nativity—which, if he was being completely truthful, was often quite
boring. Nativities consisted of static animals and statuesque shepherds standing next to the Joseph and
the Virgin Mary 'oohing' and 'awwing' over a cabbage-patch doll. Worst of all, nothing ever happened.
Passion Plays, on the other hand, captured his imagination as few things did; prophecies being
fulfilled, a brutal yet poetic death, and a stunning resurrection complete with white lights, dry ice, and a
jubilant choir singing praises.


    Max's little brain had been blown to the steepled ceiling when his parents took him and his three
siblings to the nearby Gospel Temple for their annual Easter production. The Harts were Roman
Catholic and The Gospel Temple (mostly serving to United Christians) was not their typical scene. A
Catholic mass was filled with sacrament, a great deal of kneeling, and a constant renouncement of sins.
The Gospel Temple had people on their feet, singing loudly (to a three-piece band, no less), projections,
and a Pastor who wore street clothes, speaking to his congregation like the cool “Don't Do Drugs” guy
at a school assembly. The building was a red castle from the outside; majestic in its structure. Their
Passion Play had been advertised heavily in the weeks leading up to their first performance.
And what a show! There were strobe lights, loud music, sound effects, fog that rolled off the
stage and into the front row of the audience. There was blood that seemed to appear from nowhere, a
crucifixion and yes—the resurrection, which had everyone asking, “Is he on a cable??”

   Max was swept away; entranced by what he felt had been the best show he'd seen in seven
years. “Ten out of ten. Five stars. A show for the ages,” says Max Hart from down the street.

     Going home that night, Max was touched by divine inspiration. A few years prior, at the mature
age of six, he had put on a show in his basement, hijacking the New Year's Eve party his parents were
hosting to debut his brand-new, state-of-the-art magic show using a trick-kit he had been gifted that
year. Always one to assist him in the actualization of his big ideas, Max's father pulled out all of the
stops in prepping him for his big night. Mr. Hart designed a carefully crafted top hat made from Bristol
board and construction paper and, using string, some rope, and a heavy duvet blanket covered in stains
(and a bit of spilled cereal milk from Saturday morning cartoons), he hung a theatrical curtain dividing
the rec room in half. The show was, of course, a colossal hit. And it was that very success, coupled with
the sight of a man hanging from a cross, that moved Max to adapt the Passion for his own spectacular
production.
     With only a few days left before Easter—the Harts were well in the throes of Holy Week by
then—Max began plotting how he could pull off such a show. He had a cast; his three siblings would
serve dual roles as the disciples and Pharisees—those who mourned Jesus and those who crucified him.
The younger Hart kids were long used to starring in Max's many endeavours—sometimes (and perhaps
most times) against their will. A Fisher-Price video camera that hooked up to one's VCR by a 20-foot
cable, allowing the user to record straight to a VHS tape, was surely the reason; a toy that had been
Max's most prized possession. It didn't matter what his siblings were doing. If Max had an idea, they
were starring in it. They were good sports and Max was only slightly bossy; not too little, not too much.
He asked nicely and gave them no other options.
     The night of Easter Sunday would be a perfect time; the house filled with company ready to
feast on ham or lamb and whatever else the Harts would be having. Dinner and a show—for free, at that.



 

     Mr. Hart took frantic notes as Max dictated his plan. He wanted a backdrop; the oldest, rattiest
blankets they had (the milk-stained duvet would do just fine). It had to look biblical. They needed
towels and housecoats; the robes and costumes for his siblings. Mr. Hart helped Max lift two pieces of
4x4 wood that lined the parameters of their rhubarb garden; the beginnings of his cross. The plan was
to tie Max's arms to the beam—something he had seen in more than one Bible illustration and, of
course, done to perfection at The Gospel Temple.



 

     On Easter Sunday, following a 7 am Easter egg hunt in which the Hart children sprinted around
with an energy that had surely awoken the neighbours, Max joined Mr. Hart in setting the stage. The
Hart siblings spent the day playing with toys and eating chocolate, while Max—who would be
delivering the performance of a lifetime—spent what few hours he had going over his part and 'getting
in the zone.'

 


     Nerves accompanied the first sight of guests; friends of Mrs. Hart. They had arrived pleasantly
early with a bottle of wine in hand. Not a soul was allowed in the rec room, Mrs. Hart told them at
Max's pestering insistence. “Oh,” the first guest said, giving Max a slow nod and a smile, “I see.”
Next, Uncle Bill arrived with his signature homemade buns which he handed to Mr. Hart who
rushed them to the oven.
     There was a fleeting feeling of disappointment in Max over the lack of hype surrounding his
inaugural production. Most of the focus seemed to be around the massive ham everyone would be
feasting on in just a few short hours. Despite the frustration, Max ate like a biblical king, over-stuffing
himself to the point of a minor ache. Mrs. Hart's family dinners were always something to marvel at,
both in taste and sight. Upon tasting that ham; those scalloped potatoes, that green bean casserole, he
understood, without the slightest doubt, why. And the desert! Apple pie or cheesecake, or both! Your
choice. The Hart kids had spent the day dutifully tearing apart the lining of their stomachs with
numerous Cadbury Creme Eggs, milk chocolate bunnies, and Kinder Surprises. Yet, somehow they still
found the willpower—and more surprisingly—the desire to consume more. That was the magic of Mrs.
Hart's cooking.
     “Finish what's on your plate before grabbing seconds,” Mrs. Hart said, pointing out the
breadcrumb crusts that remained on the plates of each child. Once holding the beautifully shaped
triangles of strawberry cheesecakes, they now sat like empty shells, ravaged by hungry forks that tore
them apart from the outside. It didn't matter how well made a slice of cheesecake was. As a kid, the
breadcrumb crust was always the worst.




 

     Max was downstairs within minutes of cleaning his plate. Mr. Hart had spent the better part of
the afternoon setting up the rec room to look like a theatre and it looked beautiful. Max rallied his
siblings into their bathrobes and Mr. Hart fitted them with shepherd-style caps using old towels
and washcloths. “Ready?” he asked Max with a big smile. There was no fog machine; no fancy lights
or realistic blood effects but Max was certain his production would blow the socks off of his audience,
all the same.

 


     All four Hart children huddled behind the duvet and Max rattled off instructions in a hushed
voice. “We'll start with The Last Supper. Dad will bring us the bread when it's time,” he said. They
stared at him. His youngest sister, who was all of three, sat in a diaper, snug in her bathrobe, her
attention pulled away every few seconds by everything and anything. Maybe giving my siblings a few
hours of rehearsal would have been a good thing
, Max thought. It was too late now. He could hear the
murmur of his guests on the other side of the duvet. Mr. Hart, who had done an excellent turn as Max's
trusty assistant in his New Years magic show, had volunteered his ever-growing skill-set to be his
stagehand. He would—at only the correct times—bring the required props into play.
    “Go, go!” Max ushered him to start.
    “Okay everyone.” A hush fell over the seven people in the room. In dramatic bravado, Mr. Hart
announced the show: “The Passion Play!”
     “Go, go!” Max said again, this time to his siblings. They led the procession, wearing solemn
looks on their faces and sat on the floor in a semi-circle. Mr. Hart brought a TV tray with bread and
grape juice, setting it down in the middle. He, too, wore a towel on his head so that his moments of
stage-handling would blend in with the scene. Max could hear slight giggles from the crowd. He tuned
them out. He would have them crying by the end.
     The youngest Hart child began eating a piece of bread from the TV tray, oblivious to the people
watching. Max swatted her hand. “Not yet,” he whispered. She smiled, bread stuck between her teeth.
     “This is my body, the bread of life,” Max recited what he heard every Sunday. He looked at his
siblings, arms extended over the tray, and gestured. “Go. Eat!” he whispered.
They reached for pieces of bread. The youngest Hart child—the three-year-old—stared at the
piece in her hand. First, she had been told not to eat, now she was being told to eat. It didn't make any
sense. Acting was not coming naturally to her.
     “One of you will betray me,” Max said, pushing the plot along. His siblings stared at him again;
blank. Did they not pay any attention in church?
     “Say who.”
     “Who...” his brother and sister said. The three-year-old ate.
      “You,” Max pointed to his brother, big and dramatic, “Judas.”
      By the look on his face, he had not seen that coming.
     “Me?” his reaction was genuine. Max decided to work with it. “Yes, you. Go do what you have
to do.”
      He was frozen; wide-eyed.
      “Leave,” Max whispered.
      “Oh,” he said. He got up and started moving through the rows of chairs where the guests sat.
      “No, no! Behind the curtain!”
      “Oh!” he said again, turning around quickly and hiding behind the duvet. Max turned to his
sisters. “I must go now,” he said, “the hour is at hand. Pray with me.”
      He gestured to his father to take the tray away which happened rather quickly.
     “Go to sleep,” Max hush-directed. He was rushing ahead to the Garden of Gethsemane; the
famous scene in the Bible (and in Jesus Christ Superstar, depending on where one gets their stories
from) in which Jesus doubts his decisions and asks to be relieved of his heavenly duties. At the age of
eight, Max had not yet mastered the acting chops required for such dramatic material. He was no Ted
Neeley. Not to mention the fact that he was frequently distracted by his sisters—who were proving
themselves to be two of the worst fake sleepers he had ever seen; the three-year-old still eating bread
from The Last Supper.
      His brother, on the other hand, was working over-time. Not only was he playing Judas (and he
had done a fine job of administering the arrest in the garden), he was also playing Pontious Pilate; the
infamous Roman Centurion responsible for sentencing Jesus to death. He stood beside Max, a cardboard
breast-plate tied to his chest. They had arrived at the crucifixion. The big moment. As Max lay on
the floor, his father and the three kids tied his arms down. Mr. Hart helped him stand with the crossbeam
strapped to his back in a visual that he was sure would elicit tears. It had at The Gospel Temple.
     To his horror, there was laughter. Not a lot. But enough. He did his best to ignore it as Mr. Hart
placed the cross-beam on the post (an empty Walmart box) that stood against the duvet cover.
And there he was; crucified for all to see; his vulnerability as both a character and an actor on
full display. And what he was getting in response—was laughter.
     Do they not understand? This is a serious drama; perhaps the most famous serious event ever
and I'm reenacting it with note-perfect accuracy!

      Mr. Hart pressed play on a nearby CD player and the soothing, angelic, and welcoming tone of
Charlotte Church singing Pié Jesu floated from the speakers. This seemed to only heighten the hushed
giggles which Max continued to ignore—as best he could. “Father,” he said, drawing upon his last few
acting breaths, “Into your hands, I command my spirit!”
      And with that, he closed his eyes and died.



 

     Only he wasn't dead. From every corner of the room, his attention was pulled by different
distractions. The giggles still came from the dark shadows of his audience and as he opened his eyes a
crack he saw his siblings, who were supposed to be praying at his feet, lost in worlds of their own. And
for the love of all things holy, his sister was still eating The Last Supper—she was still working away
on a single piece of bread!
     Max's blood began to boil and his breath shortened. He breathed solely through his nose like a
bull getting ready to charge. This was supposed to be reverent and serene. Not a comedic sight-gag.
And not cute! Why is everything a kid does always cute? The negative inner-critic that so often appears
when one takes on a bold endeavour took a seat in the front row of his brain and began spouting early,
condemning reviews:


“Poorly acted!”
“Silly!”
“That duvet cover? Tacky!”


     Max couldn't take any more. He opened his eyes and looked to where someone had just snapped a photo. His bottom lip quivered.

     “This is stupid!” he finally said, bursting into tears, “I hate this!”
     “Son,” Mr. Hart said. But it was too late. Max pulled himself off the post, his arms still tied to
the cross-beam—a sure miracle in biblical times but a mere temper-tantrum in 1998. He was sobbing
and where he ordinarily would have run from the room, the heavy cross-beam prevented him from
doing so. Instead, he penguin-waddled through the row of chairs until he was finally free. The remaining Hart kids could barely comprehend what had happened. It was a sight to see, no doubt; a shirtless eight-year-old in nothing but a bath towel pulling himself down from the post, red-faced, as he stormed out of the room with part of the cross still attached.


 

      Charlotte Church stopped abruptly as Max ran to the bathroom and slammed the door. He tried
to slip out from the beam but instead stared himself down in the mirror, his arms stuck in a sort of
flying pose while tears poured.
     “Hey...” a voice accompanied a knock on the door.
     “What!” Max shot back. The door opened and Mrs. Hart stepped in with a pair of scissors. She
closed the door behind her and without either of them speaking, she cut the strings holding his arms in
place. “Ow! Ow,” he said through sobs as he became free. She placed the cross-beam against the wall
and hoisted him onto the counter where she could look at him, eye-to-eye. He wasn't sure what he was
crying about now—the botched production or the fact that he had been stuck to the cross far longer
than he should have been. His shoulders were now quite sore.
      “What's wrong?” Mrs. Hart asked, running her hand through his hair.
      “It was stupid,” Max said through hiccups.
      “I thought it was wonderful. Everyone did.”
      “You were all laughing!” he shot back, “You didn't laugh at the other one.”
      How could Mrs. Hart explain to an eight-year-old how funny, charming, and frankly surreal it
was to see that same boy re-enacting the crucifixion in her own home. She couldn't.
     “They weren't doing what they were supposed to,” Max continued, “They ruined it!”
     “Did you ever rehearse with them? Did you give them time to learn their parts?”
      Max looked at the ground.
     “No.” His response was barely audible.
     “So how can you expect them to know what to do? They're not inside your head.”
     All he could do was shrug.
     “Your brother and sisters support you and love you. They wouldn't do your play if they didn't.
      You need to be patient with them. Can you do that?”
      Max nodded. His sobs had slowed to a stop.
      “We love and support you too,” she continued, “We wouldn't watch your play if we didn't. So
why don't you come back out and finish?”
       “It's over. That was the end.”
      “Well, why don't you come back out so we can grab a proper picture. Would you do that for
us?”
      Mrs. Hart gave him a kiss and opened the bathroom door. Max picked up the cross-beam and
followed her out, wiping tears from his face. He was greeted by applause welcoming his redemptive
return and he tried to hide his smile. It was itching to come out—and out it came. He beamed as he
walked his cross back to the stage.
     “I need someone to re-tie me,” he said. This got a laugh and, surprisingly, he was okay with
that. The key to his production, he realized—the thing he had been missing—was not taking it so
seriously. He didn't need to. Not with the support of his family surrounding him. Once he was re-tied,
pictures were taken as the cast posed in their final tableaux, the three-year-old still eating The Last
Supper. Another round of applause followed, marking the end of Max Hart's first-ever Passion Play.

 

      Later that night, Max lay on the top bunk of his bed; his brother below him. Both of them were
quietly snacking on the Kinder eggs they had snuck into the room after bidding their parents
goodnight. Max had long forgotten about his temper-tantrum hours earlier. It seemed like a distant,
foggy memory and all that remained were pleasant recollections of early morning candy hunts,
delicious meals, and applause. Oh, that applause. How I could live off that applause forever.
     “You awake?” he called down to his brother.
     “Yeah.”
      “Thanks for today. You were a really good Pontious Pilate.”
      “No prob!” his brother smacked his lips on some chocolate, “You were a really cool Jesus.”
       “Thanks,” Max said. He turned off the light and not long after, the newly-christened thespian
fell into a deep and well-deserved sleep.

© 2020 by Nicholas Arnold

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