The children, ages 8 and 9, enter an unused warehouse near Décarie Circle and are greeted by a bearded host:
“Are you ready to go into the time machine?” he asks them.
The children, Grade 3 and 4 students from Carlyle School in Town of Mount Royal, squeal with delight as they are ushered into the first of a series of darkened rooms.
They squat on the floor and are welcomed to Egypt, “over 3,500 years ago.”
The year is 2368, a voice intones, as two bearded and chained “slaves” appear onstage, complaining to each other.
“I haven’t eaten in days, haven’t slept in weeks. The pain and suffering is unbearable,” the actors cry.
A huge overseer enters the scene and whips them, as mournful music sets the stage for the entry of Moses – and a 45-minute retelling in contemporary language of the Exodus story.
A god-like voice calls out to Moses to contact the Egyptian pharaoh and promises help so he will “Let My People Go.”
“Are you ready to come with me?” the Moses character asked the kids on a recent visit.
“Yes,” they shout, and when he says he can’t hear them, the kids repeat the answer, with even more gusto.
This is the visual, interactive and tactile approach of Exodus 2010, a theatrical representation of the biblical story designed for children 15 and younger.
The idea originated in Sydney, Australia, about 20 years ago when Rabbi Pinny Gniwisch was a student there.
Gniwisch, who is not a practicing rabbi but a merchant, founded the Living Legacy. It reflects the Chabad Lubavitch Hasidic philosophy, which seeks to persuade Jews to practice the religion and follow its precepts.
As such, the Exodus project targets primarily Jewish children in Montreal who are unaffiliated with a synagogue to explore Jewish themes in the weeks before the annual Passover holiday, which starts at sunset on March 29.
It is also designed for the general public, and hundreds of English Montreal School Board students are expected to attend, as did the two classes from Carlyle School.
They were invited “to experience an enriching, positive learning experience based on universal values and themes,” Gniwisch said.
He was instrumental in raising $65,000 from individuals and corporate sponsors to mount the show, which has actors from across North America and uses imaginative props to dramatize the tale.
Among the most effective scenes has Moses pleading with Pharaoh to release the Hebrews or else: the 10 plagues.
A glass of water turns blood red, a plague of (rubber) frogs drops from the ceiling, an actor in a gorilla suit leaps among the kids, simulating a wild-beast curse.
And Moses leads the kids, choir like, as they chant repeatedly with more of that youthful gusto, “Let our people go, let our people go.”
The children follow Moses as he parts the Red Sea – water that drops from a pipe and blocks their way suddenly stops and they walk through to the next set.
They venture to a simulated Mount Sinai where a tablet with the ten commandments appears and Moses enunciates the core message.
“Do good deeds and acts of kindness and be nice to your fellow man.”
Asked if they agree, the kids shout, “yeah.”
Since it is a Chabad production, it ends with a recorded song about the Messiah.
Asked by an actor what they learned, one child says, “You have be respectful to elders.”
A second child says, “No slavery.”
Putting on her coat, Thuvaraga Seevaratnam, 8, said she learned that “you don’t treat others as if they are poor – treat them like family.”
Amelia Carson, 9, thought the show was “really cool” and she learned “not to treat others badly, don’t do slavery, and make sure everyone gets equal rights.”