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The heart of Oberammergau's centuries-old 'Passion Play'

CelebritiesMunich (Germany)Mel GibsonThe Passion of the Christ (movie)Germany

Frederik Mayet, who shares the role of Jesus with Andreas Richter in the 2010 "Passion Play" at Oberammergau, remembers exactly how he felt on April 19, 2009. A crowd had gathered around a blackboard on the porch of the theater, waiting and watching as town scribe Willi Hassler chalked in the names of villagers beside the roles they had been cast to play.

When the leads were written in, people clapped. "I was flying high," recalled Mayet, a 30-year-old native Oberammergauer with a passion for snowboarding. "But then reality set in. I could feel the pressure."

Playing Hamlet's tough, but for a real acting challenge, try playing Jesus. It requires six long months of rehearsal and a grueling schedule of performances lasting from May to October. With sacred sandals to fill and lines straight out of the Scriptures, the actor cast in the role appears in almost every scene of the five-hour drama, including 20 minutes on the cross, clad only in a loincloth.

So daunting are the demands of the role that when forms were sent around last year asking villagers how they wanted to contribute to the production in 2010, no one expressed the desire to play Jesus.

Mayet himself would have preferred Judas, a more nuanced role that challenges an actor to make the disciple's reasons for betraying Christ understandable. But then, Mayet also wants someday to play Richard III.

Like everyone else in the cast, he is an amateur actor who juggles his job — public relations for Munich's Volkstheater — with his "Passion Play" responsibilities. But he is no novice, having played John in 2000 and the Gravedigger in "The Plague," about the origins of Oberammergau's nearly 400-year-old mystery play, traditionally staged the year before a "Passion" summer.

And he has "Passion Play" genes, coming from a family that has been in Oberammergau since 1890. This year, his grandmother and niece appear in crowd scenes; his brother plays a follower of Caiaphas and his uncle serves as on-duty "Passion Play" doctor.

He and Richter are two of the youngest actors ever to take on the role of Christ, though both are about the age of Jesus at the time of the crucifixion. Director Christian Stuckl made a concerted effort to cast younger villagers, partly to avoid such past anomalies as using an actor in the Jesus role obviously older than the actress playing his mother Mary. Along with a change in the performance schedule that makes it easier for people to hold down jobs while taking part in the production, the greening of the cast is intended to open the "Passion Play" to young people whose interest in the tradition has waned in the last decades, along with religious devotion.

The unfolding German clerical abuse scandal has further weakened faith in once staunchly Catholic southern Bavaria, hitting unnervingly close to Oberammergau lin March when a church investigator confirmed allegations of physical and sexual brutality against children at an elite monastery school in nearby Ettal. Mayet says that cast members, some of whom attended the school, discussed the scandal during rehearsals and that he channeled his own anger about it into lines he says in the play castigating the Pharisees.

Mayet, who considers himself religious, has had to grapple with theological questions in playing a Christ who is both fully human and divine. "It's not possible to show the divine," he said, "So I try to show the human side. I see him as a young Jewish guy who can get angry and be very demanding. Someone with doubts. 'Where is my Father?' he says on the Mount of Olives. I can play that."

Mayet tried to avoid the cliché of a suffering Jesus, and he is no fan of Mel Gibson's 2004 movie version, "The Passion of the Christ"; it's too full of scourging and blood, he said. When he shivers during the crucifixion, he's not acting; he's cold, attached to the cross by a climbing harness under his loincloth. Wrist slots and a small foot rest provide additional support; still, he loses circulation in his limbs and he hasn't an ounce of surplus fat or muscle to warm him.

But you won't catch Mayet building up for the role in the gym. "It would be wrong to have a body builder on the cross," he said.

travel@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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CelebritiesMunich (Germany)Mel GibsonThe Passion of the Christ (movie)Germany
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