Nobody wanted to be Judas.
That’s how Eric Hitchner, a pastor at the Ocean City Tabernacle and Coastal Christian church in Ocean City, ended up portraying the apostle who betrays Jesus, in “The Living Last Supper.”
“Multiple guys had said they would play anything but Judas,” Hitchner said. “You’re playing the part of someone truly possessed by the devil.”
He told Director Carolyn Lothian, of Ocean City, he’d do it. And he has stuck with the role, which he will reprise for the third year Thursdayand Friday night at the Tabernacle.
The show, written in the 1950s by E.K. Emurian, depicts the events of the Biblical Last Supper, a Passover meal. It starts with Jesus washing the feet of each of his 12 apostles as he talks to them about their contributions and challenges.
But he also tells them, “One of you will betray me.”
The 13 cast members then freeze in a re-creation of Leonardo daVinci’s famous painting, with each apostle breaking out of the painting to talk about his personal relationship with Jesus, and his fears that he will somehow betray “the Master.”
Simon the Zealot, played by Kim Murphy, of Ocean City, worries that being a member of a group that advocated armed rebellion against Rome will doom him to being suspected.
“Since I’ve heard him, I have changed my mind and my allegiance,” Simon said. “But I am the only former zealot amongst us.”
James the Lesser, played by Jody Lovette, of the Palermo section in Upper Township, was “once a hated tax collector.” He wonders if that means he’ll be accused.
Judas is the only one of the group who knows who is guilty.
“I believe in Jesus, but ... I have my reasons. Is it I?
“It is I,” he announces as he faces the audience defiantly.
“The play gives an insight into each of their relationships, and their histories,” said Lothian, who brought the production to the Tabernacle in 2011. Last year about 850 people saw it each night.
“More than anything else, it’s educational,” she said. All of the details in the speeches are from Scripture, including many of Jesus’ most famous sayings, such as “Ask and you will receive” and “No one comes to the Father but by me.”
The cast members are all from Ocean City congregations: St. Peter’s United Methodist Church, the Ocean City Tabernacle, First Presbyterian Church and Second Cape May Baptist Church. Most have remained with the show since 2011, but Lothian had to find a new Jesus at the last minute this year, she said.
Kameron Ghanavati, of Ocean City, played Jesus for two years. The University of Delaware student planned to do it a third year, but then his acapella singing group won a quarterfinals competition, and the next competition conflicted with the last rehearsal.
“I said, ‘How am I going to find a Jesus with only a couple of weeks to go?’” Lothian said.
Luckily, the Tabernacle had just hired actor and singer Seth Bazacas, 26, to help run the Moorlynn Theatre on the Boardwalk as a film and live-event venue. Bazacas has plenty of acting experience, the right look and he sings — Jesus is the only character who sings in the play, other than a female character — so Lothian asked him to do the role.
“I haven’t done many religious roles,” Bazacas said. “But I definitely have a faith.”
Playing the Christian savior of mankind hasn’t gone to his head.
“You have to focus on the work and what you are doing. It’s not about you; it’s the material,” Bazacas said. “You are the vessel to tell the story.”
Bazacas graduated from Ocean City High School in 2005, where he was active with the theater department. He and wife Genavene now split their time between Ocean City and New York, he said.
He recently got back from Las Vegas, where he did a stint with his tribute group to Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. He plays Valli.
One of the big challenges in the Living Last Supper is staying completely still while others speak. Bazacas said he’s lucky to have a pose in which he can rest his arms on the table and look down.
“The guys who have to hold an arm up in the air, that’s tough,” he said. “I lucked out on the pose.”
But he has the longest continuous time to hold it — through all 12 of the Apostles’ speeches.
Even a small movement is unwelcome.
“No facial grimaces, please. No blinking of the eyes,” Lothian instructed at a recent rehearsal.
“When you sit down, you do try to remember the best posture,” said Lovette, who plays James the Lesser. “She’s strict. I leave here and recite my lines seven times on the way home. I don’t want to let her down,” he said of Lothian.
Lovette, a retired pipe fitter, said he is new to religion, having begun attending church about five years ago. “I only knew one person (in the cast); now we are like brothers,” Lovette said.
Tony Castagna III, of Upper Township, is the only one in the cast to have changed roles. The physical therapy student started out as John in 2011, and now is Andrew.
“I like my beard. John has to shave,” he explained.
He likes to see the looks on audience members’ faces, especially at the end, when cast members give communion to those who want it.
“You can see they have been touched. It’s not just a play — it’s touching hearts,” Costagna said.
Carlo Calle, of Ocean City, agrees. He owns Calle Construction in Ocean City, and plays Peter.
“It’s overwhelming, once you see it (the story) humanized,” he said. “People really come out for it, and they wait a long time at the end to get communion. There’s something so touching about it.”
Hitchner isn’t afraid to embody the conflict he sees in Judas. He plays the role aggressively, with angry looks and a scream at the end, he said.
“He’s drawn to Jesus and at the same time the devil is trying to push him in the opposite direction. It’s the inner turmoil of loving the Lord, but wanting (Jesus) to show himself to be God.”
Children and adults have told him he has frightened them with his intensity, he said. The role of Judas carries a certain stigma, which he feels as the actor.
“The cast jokes around about it an awful lot. They say, ‘We have to say hi to you now, because we can’t talk to you later,’“ he said. “Everyone truly immerses themselves in their roles.”
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