The Rev. Erik Lundgren has spent the past few months growing his hair and coaxing a serious beard. For three days this weekend, the Catholic priest also will don a white robe and a crown of thorns and portray Jesus in one of the Twin Cities' longest-running passion plays.

While "passion play" is not exactly a household phrase, these historic Easter season re-enactments of the final days of Jesus continue to draw tens of thousands of Twin Cities visitors each year — even without a surprise ending.

"There seems to be a lot of shelf life left to this concept of a passion play," said Lundgren, who will be on stage at St. Mark's Catholic Church in Shakopee. "I'm 35 years old. I have an assistant priest, and he's excited to be in the play's choir. It draws people together in a cool way for Easter."

At least a half dozen of the theatrical productions are slated in the Twin Cities this Easter season, all slightly different. They range from a "Living Stations" youth performance at the Church of St. Paul in Ham Lake to a "musical passion play" at Holy Cross Catholic Church in Minneapolis.

The plays are performed across the country, but regions settled heavily by immigrants from Germany, Austria and Poland are most likely to host them, said the Rev. Martin Schlag, a professor of Catholic studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. That includes Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota.

The practice dates to the Middle Ages, he said, when it was not uncommon on Good Friday for churches to add a bit of theater to the gospel readings. There were often three voices: a narrator, Jesus, and the other characters.

"So it wasn't such a big step to add costumes, more characters, music," said Schlag.

In fact, Lundgren's church was founded by German immigrants 150 years ago. Its altar hosted the first modest performance in 1981 with about 12 cast members, said Dave Czaja, one of its founders.

It's evolved into a significant production with about 40 costumed characters — from Roman soldiers to Twelve Apostles — plus a talented 45-voice choir.

One of the largest in the metro area, it draws a cast and crew from Shakopee and the surrounding south metro area.

Not for fainthearted

At St. Mark's, the audience sits in the darkened Gothic church, with the drama unfolding on the altar area under changing, colored lighting. A narrator tells the story, beginning with Palm Sunday, as Jesus enters Jerusalem. A smiling Jesus enters the church, walking up the main aisle to the altar, as the play begins.

The choir in the loft performs 20 pieces as the story unfolds, from a pensive solo during Jesus' crucifixion to the exuberant "Hallelujah Chorus" when Jesus rises from the dead.

While the St. Mark's production is designed to be meditative, with time for the audience to get immersed in the music and moment, it is also realistic. When Jesus is being nailed to the cross by Roman soldiers, someone backstage is actually pounding a nail into a board. When Jesus is whipped by the soldiers, the smacking sound is uncomfortably painful.

It points to the downside of passion plays — namely, they are not for the faint of heart.

While offering a deep religious experience to the faithful, passion plays can have their light moments. Even theater about the Son of God can have glitches. Sometimes the crown of thorns — i.e., grapevines — slips off the heavenly head. One year a Roman soldier on stage passed out minutes before the play was to start.

"We didn't call 911," publicity coordinator Peggy Philipp noted dryly.

Lundgren, who has portrayed Jesus for two years, admits playing the son of God is a challenge. All eyes are glued to him for 90 minutes. There's the sheer physical challenge, he said, such as dragging a heavy cross and falling to the ground "without getting crushed." But capturing the essence of the moment is no easy task, he said.

"It's a lot easier to look like Jesus than act like Jesus," said Lundgren. "You've got to enter into it. What would Christ be thinking?"

Because the St. Mark's production has been running annually for nearly 40 years, with many of the same actors and a longtime backstage crew, it all comes together in a week, said co-director Mike Bemis. Free to the public, it operates on a shoestring budget. But the area Knights of Columbus has provided support over the years, including insurance and lighting equipment.

Lundgren, a newcomer to the scene, said he's been pleasantly surprised to see the range of faces in the pews, from the reverent elderly to young Latino families.

His last performance of the year is Saturday, and with it will go the long hair and beard.

"It's a cool way to do something at Easter besides going to mass," said Lundgren. "It shows that theater and culture can be part of our faith as well."