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"The play's the thing," as it has been since the Sumerians staged their New Year festival dramas in ancient Mesopotamia. Combine our inclination to be stage-struck with a play on Christianity's origins and it becomes clear why a sleepy, south Bavarian town of 5,000 can attract 500,000 visitors to its celebrated Passion play every ten years. From May 21 to October 8 this year, audiences have been assembling from every continent for the six-hour performance, whose cast of 2,200 involves almost half the people of Oberammergau.Along with a success that lures visitors with an almost pilgrim-like dedication to this spectacle, the play has also evoked controversy in recent years. At Oberammergau, locals have simmered over qualifications for participating in the cast, the role of women, selection of the director, and disputes over script and staging. And the now-anticipated charges of anti-Semitism, which hounded the play in 1970, 1980, and 1990, have again surfaced, though in muted tones due to significant changes in the script.In the past, only Roman Catholics in good standing could become members of the cast, and then only if they had lived in Oberammergau for at least 20 years. Six of the town's Turkish Muslim citizens, who have met the 20-year requirement, are part of this year's cast but only as pagan Roman soldiers.The changes involving women are more substantial. Before the 1990 performance, only unmarried women younger than 35 could take part in the play. The reason? According to some men in the conservative community, "We don't want ugly women on stage."The women's response: "What about all the ugly men who have been on stage for years?"More seriously, this restriction often made Mary younger than Jesus in the play. The ...

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August 7, 2000

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