Reporting from Oberammergau, Germany —
After 376 years, the Oberammergau Passion Play is still a work in progress. Performed every decade as a promise to God, it now confronts its own controversial history as much as it explores its reason for being.
At an outdoor theater large enough to hold nearly the entire population of this small Bavarian village, a capacity audience of 4,700 watches Andreas Richter as Jesus angrily confront money-changers and merchants in the Temple of Solomon. The 130-foot-wide performance space is packed with hundreds of local performers playing the merchants, Jesus’ disciples and followers, curious townspeople, angry members of the Jerusalem priesthood and Roman soldiers, plus assorted livestock.
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“Is this God’s house or is it a marketplace?” Richter asks in German, smashing a large terra cotta pot and then overturning a cage to send a flock of doves flying into the afternoon sky. Many of his words and actions are traditional in Oberammergau, familiar and expected for centuries — but not what happens next.
Covering his head with a shawl, Richter holds high the sacred scrolls of the Torah and leads everyone except the Romans in a fervent Jewish prayer — in Hebrew. More Hebrew, and a Menorah, turn up later in the Last Supper scene, which sets New Testament events in the context of a solemn Passover ritual.