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Report 1988: Yes, Zig Has Written About our Bavaria Trip!

By Zig and Georgia from Kentucky, Spring 2010

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Page 8 of 30: Friday May 21 - Off to Oberammergau

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In front of the hostel

Early to bed, early to rise. Nice breakfast of bread and sliced meats and cheeses with coffee. The clerk gave us so much we made a picnic lunch with the leftovers. It was less than a block to the bus station. We told the driver (who didn’t speak English) where we wanted to go. As we were idling at one of the little intermediate stops the driver pointed out another bus, telling us that it was going to Oberammergau as well, and by a more direct route. We switched buses. I swear there are the nicest people in Bavaria and Austria.

Arriving in Oberammergau we found the youth hostel on the map and I quickly got us marching along the footpath beside the creek in the wrong direction. I promise I will never forget my compass again! If I do, I’m buying one overseas. After pulling the carry-ons about 100 yards over gravel we got turned around and found the hostel right at the base of the mountain called “Ammergau.” The little town called “Oberammergau” means “Upper Ammergau.” There is also an “Uberammergau,” meaning (you guessed it!) lower Ammergau.

In the early 1600s this entire mountain valley was decimated by plague. The residents of Oberammergau met in their Catholic church and made a solemn vow. If they were spared they would enact a play about the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. They were spared, and true to their vow they spent a year writing a play, setting up scenes, and practicing. In 1633 they put on their first Passionsspiele and have renewed their vow every 10 years since then. This year’s play had more than 2000 parts and they only use local actors. Some of today’s performers started as children, then teenagers, then young adults, taking a part every 10 years throughout their life. This kind of commitment shows. There were no “hams” on stage, and no one “phoned in” a performance. From the smallest child in arms to the most elderly “beggar” everyone was sensitive to staging, and movement, and those nuances that make an excellent performance a magnificent one. But I get ahead of myself. First we had to get ourselves settled in the youth hostel.

I had my doubts about this youth hostel thing. I pictured a rickety building with graffiti covered walls and mattresses on the floor. Not my idea of a good time. But I was in for a very pleasant surprise. When we arrived we were greeted by what looked to be a 1960s two-story college dormitory. The walkway was guarded by a chainsaw-sculpture bear sitting on a log. He was charming and kindly let us pass. There were picnic tables on the wide front porch (complete with ash trays) and a lobby packed with a busload of Korean tourists also well past the “youth” stage of life. You couldn’t stir them with a spoon. I headed for a computer that could be “rented” with a €2 coin to check my email. Georgia is much skinnier than I am and wriggled her way to the check-in desk. We had to pick up our own sheets and towels. We put fitted sheets on the mattress and covered ourselves with duvets - those giant pillows we were given in Zurich. We had them everywhere. I like ’em.

I though we’d have separate rooms - a boy’s dorm and a girl’s dorm, but no! This dorm was co-ed. Georgia got the lower bunk and I got the upper! The bathrooms were co-ed too, with no urinals but lots of private stalls. I wasn’t really looking forward to getting to know our busload of Korean tourists all that well but then Georgia discovered some dedicated men's and women’s toilets in the basement. I still took a pretty quick shower in the morning but felt a bit more secure.

We arrived just in time for lunch. It was delicious. There were three-inch long cigar-shaped potato dumplings with green peas and a meat-gravy. Several different kinds of bread, of course, with tossed salad, and lemon pudding for dessert. We plunked down at a table next to two pretty college girls from Frankfort and Hamburg. One was studying mechanical engineering. Her friend had dropped out to earn travel money before she sunk beneath the waves of higher education. She’d saved up enough for this trip to Oberammergau and then was flying to Jerusalem. Her friend seemed torn, wanting to go along on the adventure, but feeling like she needed to be “steady” and stick with the schoolwork. It’s a hard call I know, but if I had it to do over I would want to see the world before college. But then, when I was that age my Uncle Sam was sending all the rambling young-uns on an all-expense paid trip to Southeast Asia. He even supplied the armament you’d need. He gave me a grenade launcher so I could defend General Abrams’ swimming pool. The Viet Cong never took it (the swimming pool).

The walk over to the theater was pleasant. Turns out our guardian bear was not the only lovely carving in this town. In between Passion Plays the town lives on woodcarving and alpine pursuits. From our front yard we could see hang-gliders drifting lazily down from the surrounding peaks. The valley floor was flat as a griddle, and there were no gradual “hills” before you got to the mountain peaks. Perfect for hang gliding or hiking along the ridges. You just take a chair-lift to the top and either grab a walking stick and take off at a brisk clip, or grab a hang glider and step off a sheer cliff. I’m sure we would have been game for either activity but, after all, we had tickets for the show and you certainly wouldn’t want to miss a play that only comes around every ten years just so you could step off a cliff while hanging onto a brightly colored triangular umbrella!

The Passionspiele was to be performed in a modern building, clean and functional, but hardly luxurious. It was about 100 yards long and 75 or 80 yards wide. The stage was open to the sky but the rest of the building was under roof. It was threatening rain so they had arranged some triangular “sails” over the stage to direct any moisture away from the actors. Our seats were in the second row on the far left of the theater. Talk about close. The set was very simple. It looked like the central plaza of an ancient village ringed by terra-cotta buildings. There were three main action centers separated by archways depicting alleys that allowed actors to enter and exit the stage easily. The left and the right areas could represent either private or public buildings. The larger center space had a more formal feel and seemed to be a roman temple. The “floor” of this temple was steeply slanted to face the audience and could be closed off by a curtain. From time to time, this curtain would draw back to reveal actors frozen in portrayal of an episode from the Old Testament prefiguring something about to happen on-stage. And this overall stage was enormous - almost the entire width of the theatre. There were easily 1000 actors on stage during the crowd scenes. There was no way it could be curtained.

Acts and scene changes were indicated by changes in lighting and movement as people shifted from left to right and back again. Once the play began the only pause in the action came from the chorus filing on-stage to tell you what was about to happen. And oh, that chorus. I think there must have been about 80 unisex choristers, dressed in beige head to foot with robes, capes, and a soft medieval hat that completely encased their hair. They were all arranged according to height standing shoulder to shoulder in a single line from far left to far right, at the very front of the stage. The cantor was located at the exact center and dressed all in black. The shortest singers were located about half way down each “wing” and at the wingtips. This placement produced two lovely sine curves and the intonation of the singers was perfect. It was both visually stunning and musically lovely.

From our seats on the far left we couldn’t see to the back of the central proscenium. It would have been nice to have more central seats but our tickets came as a package deal with the youth hostel, and they were a good bit cheaper than the more central seats. I was very glad, though, to be close to the stage. I loved watching the expressions on the actor’s faces - even the bit actors. I know I keep saying it, but there were no slackers. These productions are little Oberammergau’s gift to the world. It gives me chill bumps to think of a tiny Bavarian mountain-valley village touching so many lives for so many centuries.

At first the stage was completely empty. Then a few children waving palm fronds came running down the “alley” on the right side of the central proscenium, across the center and up the alley on the other side. Then two disciples followed, leading a donkey. Then the chorus comes out for the first time to welcome us and announce that this Holy One will lift the burdens off Eve’s poor children. They then form two long lines leading toward the proscenium where the curtain pulls back to reveal a tableau vivant portraying Adam and Eve being banished from the Garden of Eden by an Angel wielding a flaming sword.

When the curtain closes the chorus files off. There is music and laughter as crowds come down the alleys and spill out onto the stage, completely filling it. There are even “villagers” on the roofs of the buildings looking down on the plaza. There must have been a thousand people. It could have been just chaos but the first thing that struck me was how the director had used color to organize the melee. The Jews were dressed in yellow and white. The temple officials were dressed in black and white. The disciples were in earth tones. The citizens were dressed in blue, and the beggars were in black. And right in the center of this traffic jam was Jesus, dressed all in white and sitting on the back of a little donkey. (During the play there would also be horses and sheep and even camels on stage.) And movement! There was constant movement. But not random. The groups would move kaleidoscopically. The blues and yellows and blacks would swirl and mix in new and different combinations with only the white center of attention remaining relatively fixed.

Rather than leap immediately into the “cleansing of the temple” this newest production set up the action by having Jesus deliver the Sermon on the Mount to this crowd. And the sermon was delivered in counter-point as though it was a public argument with the temple officials who hate the Romans. Jesus agreed that they should resist the Romans but says “do it this way: If he slaps you on the right cheek, then offer him the other one as well!” It’s startling to hear the actors’ raucous laughter. And when he says, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God,” he stoops over to pick up a little child. And holding the child Jesus looked out over the crowd on stage as well as the audience. You could have heard a pin drop. Jesus tells Caiaphas that if he had faith he could call on the mountains to arise and they would obey: “Nothing will be impossible for you.” The chief priest accuses Jesus of being a dreamer, and all the officials laugh. Jesus doesn’t understand power politics. Quickly we hear Jesus questioned about paying taxes to Caesar, and whether the woman taken in adultery should be stoned to death. And through it all there is this counterpoint between Jesus’ sayings and Caiaphas’ understanding of what is required to get along in the world. It’s an argument that’s been going on now for two thousand years, but I felt as if I was seeing how it began.

It was all very affecting and I found myself wondering how it would come out.

(to be continued)

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