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Shepherds and Dancers and Carols, Oh My! 

The last weekend before Christmas brings A Tucson Pastorela a Tucson Symphony sing-along and Nutcrackers galore

Milta Ortiz started her writing life as a spoken-word poet belting out verses at open mics and poetry slams in San Francisco.

Then she co-founded HyPE Theater Troupe and made a "transition from spoken word to theater," she says.

Next, she wrote three plays, including a one-woman play that she performed; picked up an MFA in playwriting at Northwestern University; and won a National New Play Network grant for a playwriting residency at Borderlands Theater in Tucson.

All of which make her uncannily qualified to write the newest version of A Tucson Pastorela, a full-length play in rhyming couplets.

Staged in a different version by Borderlands every year at Christmastime, the Pastorela is a seriocomic rendition of the medieval play about the shepherds' search for the newborn Jesus. Live waila music provided by Gertie and the T.O. Boyz and Mexican carols give it a decided borderlands twist.>

"The Pastorela is very unique to Tucson," Ortiz says. "It's an interesting mix of adult topics and family-friendly fun."

Sixteenth-century Spanish missionaries first brought the play to the New World, and it's still performed throughout the Americas. The basic plot remains the same: Three times over, the shepherds—pastores—are tempted by a comical Lucifer and his devilish diablos to give up their sacred journey. Only with the help of the Archangel Michael—Miguel—can they resist the devil's tricks.

For A Tucson Pastorela, a guest writer each year works with the unidentified Pastorela ghostwriters to create a topical rendition of the age-old story. There's always a new troubled antihero who encounters the shepherds and their merry flock of sheep and dogs in the desert.

Ortiz's protagonist is Frank, a "middle-aged man from Tucson, a developer and builder who recently lost his job and is about to be divorced," she says. "He's lived a closed-off life and now he has to face new circumstances. He has to learn not to prejudge."

The play is always abundantly supplied with political zingers. This year, in a reference to the agonies of immigration in Arizona, "Frank discovers that his newfound friends are in danger of being deported, and being locked up in Eloy," in a private detention center hidden away between Tucson and Phoenix.

Ortiz just arrived in Tucson in July, but the team of local ghostwriters "filled me in on local happenings. I got a lot of support and help. I wrote it, but it's a group effort. They shaped it a lot."

Like most of the Borderlands playwrights over the years, Ortiz found it irresistible to link the Sonoran Desert to the deserts of the Holy Land where the biblical shepherds wandered

"It starts out in Tucson and through magic it's transported to the Middle East," she says.

Besides her talents in poetry and play-writing, Ortiz has one more asset that might—or might not—enhance the play. She's the mother of a baby girl, year-old Sol. The play is "past her bedtime," Ortiz says, but if a Christmas miracle happens, Sol might be making her stage debut, as baby Jesus.

The Tucson Symphony Orchestra gets into the holiday spirit with The Magic of Christmas, a festive concert of Christmas music conducted by Keitaro Harada on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon. The TSO Chorus sings and so does the Tucson Arizona Boys Chorus. Even the audience gets a chance to jump in and warble the fa-la-las in "Deck the Halls" and sing along on "Carol of the Bells," "Rudolph" and other faves.

The Tucson Regional Ballet staged its full-length Southwest Nutcracker last weekend, with the help of the TSO musicians, but the dancers return to leap once more. The ballerinas dance excerpts from their home-grown Nutcracker, set in 1880s Tucson and peopled with Southwest characters like the Prickly Pear Fairy. Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, fresh from his triumph last weekend in Las Cascanueces—the Nutcracker put on by Dancing in the Streets Arizona—steps onto the stage once more.

More Christmas music—in a swinging vein—comes along in A Swingin' Christmas. Accompanied by a six-piece band, four vocalists harmonize on tunes from Christmases past, including "White Christmas," "Happy Holidays" and "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year." Nick Gallardo, Nicolette Hart, Sean Zimmerman and Crystal Stark are the crooners singing songs made famous by the Andrews Sisters, Nat King Cole and others.

For anyone still in a Nutcracker frame of mind, Tucson has four more full-length productions this weekend. The Moscow Ballet touring company, 40 dancers strong, stops by Tucson to dance the Great Russian Nutcracker. 3 and 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 21. Fox Tucson Theatre, 17 W. Congress St. $27.50 to $175. 547-3040; foxtucsontheatre.org.

The other three Nutcracker productions are staged by local studios, with the student dancers mostly taking the leads. Ballet Rincon, though, enlists young adults trained at the UA School of Dance. Mark Nichols, a new grad of UA School of Dance, returns as Cavalier and Ashley Hammond, a current UA student, dances Sugar Plum Fairy. Ballet Rincon dances its traditional version at the eastside Vail Theater of the Arts, 10701 E. Mary Ann Cleveland Way, 879-3925. $8 to $14; 7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 20; 2 and 7 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 21. 574-2804; ballet-rincon.com

Creative Dance Arts Studio in northwest Tucson brings its students to Pima Community College West to dance a classic Nutcracker at 7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 20, and 1 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 21 and 22, at the Center for the Arts, 2202 W. Anklam Road. $10 to $25. 887-5658. And midtown's A Time to Dance studio performs its 13th Nutcracker at 7:30 p.m., Friday, Dec. 20, and 2 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 21 at Berger Performing Arts Center, 1200 W. Speedway Blvd. $8 advance; $10 door. 272-3400; atimetodancetucson.com.

The Nutcracker, choreographed by Petipa to a score by Tchaikiovsy, premiered in 1892 at the Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia. A new 3-D film of a Maryinsky Ballet performance allows Nuctracker lovers to see the place where it all began. Reel Arts 6 at The Crossroads, 4811 E. Grant Road, screens The Nutcracker at 7 p.m., Thursday, Dec. 19; 11 a.m., Saturday, Dec. 21; and 5 p.m., Tuesday, Dec. 24. Check with theater for updated times.

No Christmas is complete without It's a Wonderful Life, the 1946 movie by Frank Capra, with James Stewart as the disconsolate businessman saved by an angel. See it on the big screen at 2 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 22, and at 6 p.m., Monday, Dec. 23, at the Fox Tucson Theatre, 17 W. Congress St. Doors open one hour before. $8 adults; $6 students and seniors; free to kids 10 and younger. 547-3040; www.foxtucsontheatre.org

More by Margaret Regan

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