How Now Oberammergau? It will be 2010 before audiences can again see the historic Oberammergau Passion Play with its new sets and costumes. By then, they won't be so new. But the stunning costumes and the renewed multi-area stage will at least be on display to tourists in the Bavarian Alps during the nine years before the biblical drama is repeated.
The play - based on Bible accounts of the last five days of Jesus' life - was first performed in 1634, as a village vow of thanks for being spared from the Black Plague. Since then, it has been staged with a cast of local citizens only every decade. In 1960, efforts were made to revise the drama - then eight hours long - in response to complaints from Jewish leaders who alleged anti-Semitism in some portrayals of Jews. In 1970, the running time was reduced to five hours. Now director Christian Stuckl has reworked the drama and added an hour playing time.More important, he has sought to present Jesus and his followers as poor but pious Jews, not as the first Christians, in handsome robes.
Local designer Stefan Hageneier, working with 12 town seamstresses, has created almost 2,000 costumes for the 18 principals and some 1,540 Oberammergau men, women, and children. Pontius Pilate, his aides, and his Roman soldiers are dressed in armor and rich red and white fabrics. They represent the powers of imperial Rome, as often depicted in historical paintings.
Previous costumes for the Jews - especially for the temple high priest and his followers - had been based on medieval artworks. Hageneier, who also designs for major German theatres, decided it was time for a new look. The most impressive change is the huge hats for Jewish officials, plus bold colors for their costumes. The new hats look like Greek Orthodox priests' stovepipe headgear gone wild. They also resemble some fashionable Italian Renaissance men's hats.
Stuckl - who, like Hageneier, also works in important German theatres - tried some changes when he first staged the Passion Play in 1990. Then there was a lot of resistance to his ideas, but he says, "I've won their confidence now."
Stuckl has been intent on subtly underscoring the sincere religious belief - and poverty - of the Jewish people, as opposed to the luxury, greed, and abuse of power by those over them, both Jewish and Roman. The agonies of Jesus after he has been betrayed and arrested are not downplayed in this production: the crown of thorns is woven of really thorny briars. After Roman soldiers have nailed Jesus to his cross, he hangs there for some 20 minutes, before being lowered with a long white cloth. The harness holding him aloft is concealed in his loincloth.
For the Millennial production, the 4,700-seat covered auditorium - open at one end - was renovated for $7.5 million. The permanent stage structures were also resurfaced. They include a large proscenium stage-house at the center of the very wide stage and two smaller semi-stages at either side, linked by large arches revealing streets of Old Jerusalem.
Hageneier designed new tableaux vivants for the proscenium space. Traditionally, these living pictures present frozen moments from the Old Testament and from Jesus' earlier life. The sets for each of these posed scenes were colorful and abstract, painted largely in two dimensions. The Worship of the Golden Calf was especially effective.
Large crowd scenes - involving scores of Oberammergauers - were spread out across the very wide open stage. But important smaller-scale confrontations and intimate scenes were set inside the proscenium stage. The sets for these-in contrast to the living pictures - were three - dimensional, using a variety of structural elements.
As an avant-garde complement to the historic but visually renewed Passion Play, Hageneier helped theatre innovator and artist Robert Wilson set up a special light and sound installation behind the Passionspiel Playhouse: 14 Stations. Inspired by - but not resembling - the 14 Roman Catholic Stations of the Cross, it consisted of six small wooden houses with displays inside, plus two larger symbolic stations.
In one house were two files of Shaker women knitting; Saint Veronica wiping Jesus' sweat with her handkerchief was represented in another house by a Shaker woman holding a flatiron. In yet another, there were raging red wolves backed by the Alps. This represented Jesus' agony on the cross.
Fortunately, there was a brochure explaining the correspondences. Old-time Oberammergauers weren't pleased with this creation, but it was rather hidden behind the theatre. It is scheduled to tour, unlike the biblical drama.
By mid-October, some 500,000 people will have seen the millennial Passion Play production. About 60% are Americans!