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Bushy, Virtuous Actors Sought for Germany's Hit Passion Play

Actors taking part in the Oberammergau Passion Play will be paying their final visit to the hairdressers next month as preparations begin in earnest for the mammoth theatrical event.

Actor portraying Jesus crucified

The Oberammergau Passion Play is an epic reenactment of the main Christian narrative

As no wigs are used, participants must grow their hair and beards well ahead of next year's performances. The hair decree, as it is called, comes into force on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 25.

Some 2,500 villagers have applied to take part in the next staging of the play from May to October 2010, according to its artistic director, Christian Stueckl.

"That is 300 more than we had the last time the play was performed in 2000," he told a press conference in Munich, outlining details of his third term in charge of the production.

The passion play has been performed every decade since 1634 by the inhabitants of the village of Oberammergau in the southern German state of Bavaria. Its origin dates back to the Thirty Years War when the village was decimated by the bubonic plague.

The surviving population promised God that if he saved them they would commemorate it by staging a dramatic representation of Christ's suffering, death and resurrection every ten years.

The only time the play was not performed was during World War II.

Local actors

Christian Stueckl, holding a poster for the Passion Play

The 2010 play will be the third one directed by Christian Stueckl

The entire cast consists of villagers who live permanently in Oberammergau, which has a population of 5,000. They must also be amateurs and people of high moral and ethical principles.

A requirement restricting the roles to Christians was dropped in 2000, when young Muslims living in the predominantly Catholic village were allowed to appear in the play for the first time.

Stueckl altered the text of the 2000 version to remove passages that in the past offended Jewish groups with their depiction of Jews as Christ-killers, giving the play an anti-Semitic slant.

The artistic director also plans to change the text for the new season, placing less emphasis on the "revolutionary aspect" of Jesus in favor of showing the "consequential way that Christ lived his life, right up to his crucifixion."

The Oberammergau Passion Play is performed in German and runs for five-and-a-half hours, with a three-hour break. In the past it was staged during the morning and afternoon.

Controversial change

Actors rehearsing at the Passion Play theater in Oberammergau

Changing the play schedule required a village referendum

For the first time, the 2010 version will be performed in the afternoon and evening, a change which caused a lot of controversy, according to the play's spokesman Frederik Mayet.

"The issue was put to a referendum, in which 4,000 people took part," Mayet said. "Sixty-five per cent were in favor on the new schedule."

The final cast selection is due to be made on April 18, with rehearsals scheduled to begin in October.

Stueckl has also designed a new setting for the production, but will continue to use the colorful costumes designed and made by villagers for the 2000 staging.

More than half-a-million visitors, many from abroad, are expected to descend on the picturesque Alpine village for the 100 performances, paying between 49.5 euros ($65) and 165 euros ($214) for tickets.

Passion plays have been staged since the 12th century and often give a detailed portrayal of Christ's physical suffering. Many of them include explicit dramatizations of the beating and execution of Christ.

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