For many, the famous Passion Play is a family tradition


Jesus, played by Frederik Mayet, meets his mother in a scene from the Oberammergau Passion Play in Germany, which runs from May 14 to October 2. (Photo CNS/Birgit Gudjonsdottir, Passionspiele Oberammergau 2022)

By Dale Gavlak
Catholic Press Service

OBERAMMERGAU, Germany — “I cry out, ‘Jesus is innocent! Free him!’ exclaimed Roswitha Stückl in a loud voice, while smiling at her husband, Peter, who plays Annas, the high priest.

White-haired Peter Stückl laughed as he recounted his many years of acting in the world-renowned Passion Play and the villainous role he now performs; his father has already played the same role. But Roswitha Stückl portrays a poor woman, part of the crowd on stage who support Jesus against the religious and political authorities who want to eliminate him.

“We don’t fight at home, only on stage,” Roswitha Stückl told Catholic News Service with a mischievous smile. The couple recently celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary to testify to that.

Their son, Christian, is Passion Play’s newest director; he is directing the production for the fourth time.

“I started playing in Passion Play when I was 7 years old in 1950”, explained Peter Stückl. “It’s important when you’re a kid growing up in this village and it’s all about the play.” Although this year he embodies Annas, he was also the priest Nathanael; Judas, who betrays Jesus; the high priest Caiaphas; and he was once the youngest bass in the choir.

“It is very important to participate. Everyone wants to participate. It encompasses your whole life,” he told CNS.

The play’s 2022 assistant director, Abdullah Kenan Karaca, also plays Nicodemus, who chooses to follow Jesus, after having a long conversation about how to truly know God.

“As a child, I lived next to the church and was fascinated by the pictures and everything there, so I had to be in the room,” said Karaca, the son of Turkish immigrants. He grew up in Oberammergau, a predominantly Catholic village where many house facades depict biblical scenes or Mary. But this village too becomes a reflection of Germany’s more diverse society. This year’s play features a prominent Muslim actor for the first time.

“Being on stage back then was something I could never forget. We were told never to watch the audience, but I did. It was maybe the first sign that I would later become a director or work in the theater,” he said with a laugh.

“Some residents of Oberammergau take part in the play because of their faith, their wish or are fascinated by the great production of the theatre. But everyone tries to do their best and do it with their heart. It’s a very beautiful story that the Passion of Jesus can bring together a lot of people,” said Karaca.

When the plague hit Oberammergau in the 1630s, the town prayed to stop the spread of disease. Residents then swore to God to perform a passion play – something that was common at the time – every 10 years as an act of penance, worship and thanksgiving.

Karaca said he has been resident director of the Munich People’s Theater since 2015.

“Passion Play is different from normal theatre. It’s not made for applause. We have a wish. Also, it is not manageable to bring together all the actors – this year there are 1,800, including the children – on stage. But we can hear the applause,” he said.

“People participate in the play honestly, respectfully, faithfully. It’s really important,” Karaca told CNS. “We are aware of what we are doing. The live animals on stage – a donkey, two horses, two camels and a number of sheep and goats – can be tricky, but the base is still there, setting the tone of respect.

Frederik Mayet, one of the two actors playing Jesus, comes from a family with a long history of participating in the Passion Play, starting in 1890. His children, aged 3 and 8, are with him on stage .

“Passion Play is in Oberammergau’s DNA. Today you can’t think of the village without the game, everyone is so involved. It’s in our genes to make the game,” Mayet told CNS. “It’s the most important social event we have, and everyone is so proud to have this centuries-old tradition in our city.”

Performers must be born in Oberammergau or have lived in the village for 20 years, although children are excluded from this rule.

However, Mayet was not able to perform in the play for the first time until she was 20 years old. Although he was born in Oberammergau and grew up there, his family moved to Munich for his father’s studies.

Mayet, who also works professionally in theater in Munich and Oberammergau, first played the role of Jean the Disciple. It is now the second time he has taken on the role of Jesus, and for him “it really means a lot”.

“You go to church, read the Gospels, but being on stage and trying to bring Jesus to life is something completely different, because you have to think about the situation, the meaning of his words and what he wanted of us,” Mayet said.

“I think it’s a great gift to have the opportunity to be part of this piece. It’s very special and definitely enriches my life.

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