The city of Bethlehem is a stone-clad nexus of religion, attracting travelers from all over the world who seek salvation. The Holy Land Experience is an 11-year-old Orlando amusement park dedicated to the Passion of Christ, with actors dressed as biblical denizens, centurions, and apostles. At the end of every day, Jesus is crucified, complete with blood, special effects, and a stirring music score.
"It's a full-on production," says writer-performer Martin Dockery, who visited the park as research for his new one-man show, Holy Land Experience. "Going through it was my entire preparation. I got a sense of the real Bethlehem through this American facsimile."
Dockery, who presented Wanderlust and The Bike Trip at previous Piccolo Fringes, was inspired to create his newest show by a Christmas carol, "O Come All Ye Faithful." "I thought, wow, what if this song has been misinterpreted? What if it was really a tourist ad designed to draw people to Bethlehem?" he says. He vowed to himself that by the time next Christmas rolled around, he would go to Bethlehem just like the joyful and triumphant subjects of the song. But he wouldn't describe himself as faithful.
"I'm not religious at all, although I was raised Catholic," Dockery says. "Even if you don't believe, it's exciting to see what Bethlehem looks like." He took his trip with no preconceived notions. "All I was aware of was how ignorant I am of everything going on there. My sense of the world comes from The New York Times. My whole sense of Bethlehem has come secondhand from people who have other agendas or don't know anything more than me."
Not surprisingly, Dockery met many pilgrims in the Holy Land. "They were from so many different kinds of religions, sects of Judaism and Christianity, all eager to talk about their faith. Everyone had some viewpoint." Although religion is one of Dockery's least favorite topics — he doesn't have much patience for it — he was unable to escape it on his travels, and he even gained insight into the people he encountered, "what they were seeking and how they tried to reconcile whatever was disturbing them."
Dockery's personal experiences made his trip more relevant. He'd just had a terrible breakup with a girlfriend who he'd cheated on, and he was still dealing with the guilt of what he'd done to her. "How do you forgive yourself and beg forgiveness of others?" he asks. "I was reconciling the pain I'd caused this girl I love. And how could I create a relationship with the new girl and be honest with her?"
Despite the weighty themes of the show, there are just as many laughs in Holy Land as in Dockery's past productions. It's funny without mocking any of the pilgrims. The humor comes from a mixture of the events Dockery witnessed, the way believers were naturally at odds with each other, and his own neuroses. With no sets or music cues, he relies on his wits to keep the audience entertained. His mix of honest soul-searching, observational comedy, and gripping storytelling make his shows an epic experience. The young performer may not have found religion, but he's gained devout followers nationwide.