Originally created 07/01/00

Passionate journey

When villagers-turned-actors take to their Alpine stage Sunday to perform the 17th-century Passion play that made their hometown, Oberammergau, Germany, famous, the audience will include Augustans from two area churches.

About 50 faithful from First Baptist Church of Augusta and Trinity-on-the-Hill United Methodist Church left Augusta on June 25 to see the massive play.

The drama retells the final days of Christ's life. Villagers promised to perform the play if God spared them more outbreaks of the bubonic plague. The first pageant was in 1634 and is typically held every decade in years ending in zero.

It takes some 2,200 of the 5,400 men, women and children living in the German village to present the six-hour mega spectacle. Some are players, while others work behind the scenes. But all must have been born in Oberammergau or have lived there for at least 20 years.

The pageant's effect is overwhelming and profoundly moving, said Dr. Timothy Owings, pastor of First Baptist. He and wife Cathy saw a special anniversary performance in 1984.

The Bavarian Alps form a beautiful backdrop for the lavish pageant. Although viewers have a covered auditorium and a heated floor, actors work on an open-air stage. Despite the sometimes frosty wind, more than half-a-million people will see the production, which runs from May to October.

Scenes from Christ's triumphal procession into Jerusalem through his resurrection are interspersed with others from the Old Testament. Performances are in German.

Most of the Augustans with Dr. Owings, including Dr. David Jones, Trinity's pastor, will be seeing the drama for the first time.

The ministers decided to go together about three years ago, Dr. Owings said. "We knew there would be a lot of interest."

The Baptist-Methodist tour was born from their friendship and a desire to set an example for their congregations, Dr. Jones said. "We are not each other's enemies."

Travelers paid their own way, about $3,600 per person.

Although Dr. Jones only has seen slides from earlier performances, he has high expectations, he said. "Everything that I have heard about the play is that it is an incomparable religious drama."

Perhaps even more amazing than the sheer size and scope of the production is its professionalism, considering that everyone involved, from the director, through the musicians, singers, actors and stagehands, to the people who clean the theater toilets, must, by tradition, be from the town.

And while all participants are paid something from the proceeds, it's so little that the project is really a labor of love. Those with major speaking roles had to take a leave of absence from their work beginning with the start of rehearsals in September. Performers with smaller parts plan their work or school life around their time on stage, dashing to and from the theater by bicycle whenever their presence is required. Most of the male actors grow beards and let their hair grow long, starting on Ash Wednesday of the previous year. Those with off-stage jobs requiring trim haircuts - butchers, waiters and food handlers - are given the roles of clean-shaven Roman soldiers.

For the people of Oberammergau, the Passion play is partly a tourist draw, partly a debt to God, and partly a thrilling escape from the workaday world - all of it dating back to 1633. With the town reeling from both the Thirty Years War and the bubonic plague, the beleaguered village fathers promised God they would perform the story of Christ's suffering, death and resurrection once every decade if he would spare them further outbreaks.

They kept their word the following year with a staging in the local cemetery. At the time, Passion plays were common in cities and towns across Europe. But by the 18th century the Catholic Church, which had originally encouraged the shows, ordered them banned. Oberammergau was forced to skip its 1770 season, but received special permission to carry on in 1780. It has been the mother of all Passion plays ever since.

The two World Wars forced a postponement in 1920 and a cancellation in 1940, but there were also special jubilee performances in 1934 (attended by Adolf Hitler) and again in 1984.

"Many of us come from families who have been involved with the play for a long time," said Otto Huber, who was born in Oberammergau in 1947. He has a triple role in this year's performance: assistant director, performer (the Prologue) and writer (he made major revisions to the text in order to overcome objections from Jewish groups, as well as to make the play more spiritual and to reinterpret the role of Christ.)

"Two of my mother's ancestors died in the pestilence of 1633," he says. "Four were in the 1680 production, the first for which we have written records. My grandfather played Caiaphas three times. My great-grandfather was the Prologue." With roots like that, Mr. Huber said, it doesn't matter that he's earning less than he would at his regular job as a teacher.

Traditionalists may be surprised at the strong attachment depicted between Christ and Mary Magdalene, which culminates in a lingering kiss. There also is a risque scene in which a temple guard fondles a woman's breast. Both won the approval of the local Catholic cardinal, who has a veto over the script, as does the parish priest, the town's Lutheran minister and the town council. The council, currently made up of conservative and liberal elements, also hires the director and his creative team and has final say over who plays all roles.

Running in tandem with the Passion play is an Oberammergau art exhibit, which is anything but traditional. The title, 14 Stations, prepares visitors for a series of images depicting events in the sufferings of Jesus. But there are no familiar symbols in this interpretation by American artist Robert Wilson.

Oberammergau itself, meanwhile, backed by rocky cliffs and fronted by green meadows, is a postcard-perfect stage set. The walls of many of its shops and houses are colorfully painted with religious scenes. Its Catholic church is a baroque jewel. And its souvenir stores bulge with the region's famous wood carvings, beautiful to behold, but not for the faint-of-pocketbook.

And for those who don't make it until 2010? They can be sure of one thing: that there will be a Passion play then, as there has been for more than 3´ centuries. What is never certain, of course, is that it will be just like this year's.

Observed Mr. Huber: "There are several different groups in Oberammergau, and everyone of them says, `We know how to make it better.' If one group ever gives up," he predicted, "another one will always be there to take over" - to preserve and remake a classic tale of suffering, grief and redemption.

- Reports from the Toronto Globe and Mail were used in this story.

If you go

Munich Airport is served by Lufthansa. It's about a three-hour train trip from Munich Airport to Oberammergau with changes at Munich Pasing and Murnau.

Most tickets have been pre-sold to tour operators for the entire season. But some returns will be available at the box office each play morning from 8:30 to 9:30. Tickets cost 150 marks or 100 marks ($70 to $50). A limited number of packages including tickets, meals and accommodation in hotels, guesthouses or private residences are available for July through September. They can be ordered through the Internet at www.oberammergau.de. Finding a hotel or guesthouse room in the town that isn't part of a package is next to impossible.

Many travel agents offer tours including an Obergammerau performance.

German National Tourist Office. New York City. (212) 661-0756

Germany tourism site: www.germany-tourism.de

Oberammergau town site: www.oberammergau.de

Passion play site: www.passionsspiele2000.de

For more information, visit www.oberammergau.de.

Reach Virginia Norton at (706) 823-3336 or vanorton@augustachronicle.com.


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