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I had a premonition this performance would not end well. It wasn’t because this was an impossibly big-and-spectacular Easter production that my relatively small-and-homespun church had been rehearsing for months. And it wasn’t because there were two smoke machines in the tomb that kept malfunctioning and the feathers on the angel wings refused to remain glued. No. It was because there was a live animal in the cast – and as the director, it would fall to me to … well … direct it.
Now everyone knows that one of the time-honored maxims of theatre is to never ever share a stage with a baby or an animal. Especially the latter. Animals are unpredictable, pose public hygiene challenges, and are perpetual scene-stealers. But the music director would not listen to any of my arguments and announced that this year Jesus would ride into Jerusalem during the Triumphal Entry song on a donkey. The pastor also thought it was a wonderful idea and read me the Scriptural account in Mark 11 of the “donkey colt that had never been ridden.”
“Don’t you think this will really bring the Bible to life?” he insisted. It’s hard to argue with your pastor when he’s quoting the Word of God. I sighed and relented. The donkey was in.
Two nights before our opening performance on Palm Sunday the designated steed arrived. Uh oh. He was no more than a burro – those small, gentle, wooly creatures that carry preschoolers around in circles at birthday parties. This would never do for the Triumphal Entry. What’s more, Steve Gabriel was playing our Jesus that year and Steve was a really big guy – well over six feet tall and possessing a massive barrel chest. He just looked at the little burro and shook his head. “You’re gonna need somethin’ a whole lot bigger ‘n’ stronger if you expect me to be in the saddle.”
As luck would have it, one of the deacons knew of such a creature. His name was Buster and he belonged to a sweet older woman in our church named Flo. Carl the deacon assured us all that Buster was equal to the task – strong enough to carry Steve Gabriel “and maybe even a disciple or two” he chuckled. Flo lived on a farm outside of town (metropolitan Kansas City) and promised to drive Buster in the next night for dress rehearsal. He never made it. Buster’s trailer broke down on Route 24. That should have been my first warning, but I assured everyone Buster was undoubtedly a trouper and didn’t need any rehearsal.
Opening night arrived with its usual flurry of anxious activity. It was ten minutes before the beginning of the production and I was standing at the rear of the auditorium when I got word that Buster had finally arrived. “Buster’s cutting it a bit close, isn’t he?” I asked my stage manager. “Well,” she said, “we had a little trouble getting him through the back door.” That should have been my second warning.
Five minutes later the house dimmed and with shouts of “Hosanna!” the sanctuary was flooded with waving palm branches. I anxiously scanned the stage, waiting for Jesus’ arrival. Then, from stage left, Buster made his entrance.
My mouth fell open. Buster was no burro, but he also was no donkey. Buster was a mule. And not just any mule … a Missouri mule. The only thing this beast had in common with the Scriptural description was that he had never been ridden.
Jesus was doing his best to remain astride the massive creature, but Buster was not prepared for his encounter with our twelve-member dance team. Every time Buster turned his head he was smacked with a palm; every time he tried backing up he was whacked on the backside with a spiky branch. His legs stiffened, his nostrils flared, and his ears went straight back. Jesus was attempting to dismount when a cymbal crashed in the orchestra. And with that, Buster had had enough.
Responding to instinct, Buster turned on his huge heels and bolted off stage left, heading straight for his trailer and Route 24. Jesus, who had never fully executed his dismount, had no choice but to go with him – hanging onto the coarse mane for dear life and shouting some words that were not exactly…Scriptural. The rest of the cast, also responding to instinct, exited as rehearsed, stage right. “Hosanna!” they shouted, to no one in particular. “Hosanna!” Lights out.
I starred in utter horror from the rear of the auditorium. All I remember thinking was “Well, this is the shortest Easter production ever performed. Everyone has entered Jerusalem and Jesus has just galloped back to Nazareth. We’re done. Everyone can go home.” The stage manager ran up to me, completely frazzled. “What do we do?!?” she gasped. Of course, there was nothing to do but go on to Scene 2 and the money-changers at the temple. Looking a bit stunned and disheveled, Jesus made it on stage in time to overturn the tables; he later said his harrowing ride had helped with the emotion needed for the scene. And Buster was packed into his trailer and driven back to his pasture. He retired from performing that night. He would never appear on stage again. The following evening, Jesus walked into Jerusalem.
And me? I renewed my vow then and there to never ever direct a production that involved a baby or live animals again. (Well, until Christmas comes around with that manger and a stable…)