Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - October 14, 2022

A passion for the Passion

Every 10 years, a small village lying in a valley between mountain ranges of the Bavarian Alps does something so extraordinary it draws people from across the world. It began nearly 400 years ago with a few villagers presenting a play in a field while their fellow townsfolk, seated on the grass, watched. This year, 1,800 people were involved - about one-third of the village's population. The preparations required years and the play was presented more than 100 times since May.

The spectacle began as a response to the Black Plague's arrival in 1633. Villagers made a promise to God that if the dying stopped, every 10 years they would stage a play of the Passion of Jesus.

Husband Art and I first visited Oberammergau in 1989, having heard of its idyllic setting and beautifully-painted buildings. Although we returned several times over the years, none was a year the play was presented. But when Art began planning a trip this fall for friends Deb and Lou and Art and me, he discovered the Covid pandemic had delayed the 2020 season to this year.

This 42nd-performance year began May 14 and ended October 2. We attended on Sept. 30, a cool, cloudy day. While the theater is covered, it is open to the elements, so we brought jackets, gloves, scarves and blankets. I was pleased the 4,500 seats were comfortably contoured - an important consideration for a five-hour play.

Villagers participate - as cast members, choral and instrumental musicians, stage and lighting experts, costume designers, carpenters, ticket takers, public relations professionals, animal trainers, and more. Donkeys, horses, sheep, goats, chickens, homing pigeons and even camels are part of the cast.

At 10 a.m., we attended an English introduction by Abdullah Kenan Karaca, who portrays Nicodemus and is also the deputy director. Karaca said the village council establishes the basic rules governing the production, including that people have to either be born in Oberammergau or live there for at least 20 years before they can get a speaking part, although children are always welcome to participate. Another rule - that no married women or women over age 35 could be in the play - was voted down in 1990.

When Karaca was 11, Christian St�ckl, the director of the play since 1990, asked if he would like to be in it. Karaca, now 33, didn't think he could because he's Muslim. But when St�ckl promised Karaca's parents there would be no efforts at evangelism, they consented.

In the early years of the Passion Play, non-Catholics weren't given speaking roles and the play was very anti-Semitic. Some portraying Jewish characters even wore horns. In 1980, the American Jewish Committee called Oberammergau "the international capital" of religious anti-Semitism. But things have changed. Today, people of diverse backgrounds participate and in August, St�ckl received the Isaiah Award for Exemplary Interreligious Leadership from the American Jewish Committee for his efforts at including people of different faiths and eliminating anti-Judaism references from the play. Recent discoveries by scholars have modified the traditional view of Judas as an evil betrayer. St�ckl incorporated these findings by softening the portrayal of Judas.

The town prepares for the Passion Play years in advance. Musicians start rehearsing three years before. Male cast members begin growing their hair and beards on Ash Wednesday the year before the play. Others design sets, make costumes and do other tasks long before the performance year arrives. Since 1990, those who have major roles spend one week in Israel to learn some of its culture and history.

Everyone involved has to make a real commitment to the event, even arranging their jobs and schooling to allow them to participate. Two people are cast in each of the major roles - Jesus, Mary, Mary Magdalene, Judas, Peter and others - to allow for flexibility in scheduling and to provide back-up in case of illness.

Karaca said an important aspect of the play for the participants is it brings together people from across the village whose lives would otherwise be unlikely to intersect, including those of different generations. He stressed the importance of having children involved so they continue the tradition.

Music makes up about one-third of the play. The choir and orchestra each have about 120 members with about half performing on any particular night. The choir introduces "living images" from the Old Testament, including the parting of the Red Sea, Moses and the Burning Bush, Daniel in the Lion's Den, and others. The characters in these are all actors who have to hold their poses during the presentation.

The first part began at 1:30 p.m. with Jesus' entry into Jerusalem on a donkey and ended at 4 p.m. with his arrest. The second, from 7-9:30 p.m., began with his questioning by the high council and ended with his death and resurrection.

During the intermission, Deb, Lou and I visited the Oberammergau Musuem, which had a special exhibition tied to the Passion Play. The outside of the building was completely covered with costumes worn by actors from the 2000 and 2010 plays. Inside were costumes and even "ropes" made from the actors' hair that was cut after the season had completed. When we left, we were each given small pieces of cloth from one of the old costumes - to symbolize "the sense of community among people - giving and sharing is part of redemption."

Karaca said the play has evolved over time, which makes it more relevant to today's audiences. He hopes spectators take something from the play - whether it's to experience the story of Jesus' life, to think about social justice, to ponder our connection to the past, or to just be amazed at the persistence and passion it takes for the people in one small German village to create such an internationally-recognized event.

For me, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience - an experience prompted by one pandemic and facilitated by a second.

Top (l-r): the village is in the Ammergau Alps. The playhouse is at the lower right; near the center of Oberammergau, banners for the play are on display among the buildings with painted walls; Abdullah Kenan Karaca provided an introduction for English-speaking audience members; Gloria, Deb in blue coat, Art and Lou at the far right wait for the playhouse doors to be opened. Bottom (l-r): audience members file in before the performance; Gloria, Lou and Deb in front of the museum covered with costumes from performances in previous decades; Jesus after being lowered from the cross. (First and last images from a promotional video produced by the village.)

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