In this age of big-budget movies and streaming video, it's easy to question the value of live theater. A movie ticket is cheap, and theater certainly can't compare in terms of pyrotechnics or CGI.
Is there, in fact, anything you can do onstage that can't be done better on film? The answer is a resounding yes, and anyone who doubts this should attend Borderlands Theater's A Tucson Pastorela, now making its 14th annual appearance in the Old Pueblo.
A Tucson Pastorela certainly isn't convincingly realistic in the way that film can be. But a play in which Satan is a lifelong Star Trek fan—and a cartoon does battle with vampire heartthrob Edward Cullen—is not striving for realism.
A time-traveling magic sandstorm is created onstage with nothing more than sound and some wildly flailing actors. Try getting away with that in a movie.
And theater can reflect and respond to its community in a way that no mass media can. This is where Pastorela shines. The play draws on the Hispanic and indigenous cultures that have made Tucson what it is today, and while La Pastorela always recounts the Christmas story of the shepherds' search for the Baby Jesus, it changes every year, zeroing in on local political issues and pop culture.
In this year's version, a modern Arizona woman (Magdalena Colchado) is magically transported to the past to join shepherds, pilgrims, sheep, a dog and a certain expectant couple named Joseph and Mary on their journey to Bethlehem. During a rehearsal I watched last week, references to health care and the economic crisis were thrown around like custard pies. Sarah Palin, Sheriff Joe Arpaio and rage-fueled tea parties all made comic cameos.
Mexican Christmas carols rubbed elbows with folk music and pop songs, performed to the hilt by a diverse cast of trained and untrained actors. Adding to the festive atmosphere, live waila music was provided by Gertie and the T.O. Boyz.
The shepherd of this wild flock is director Eva Tessler. Tessler is practically part of the tradition herself, having choreographed the show since its second year; she's directed it for the last two. During rehearsal, she was the calm eye at the center of the whirlwind, guiding her cast through their choreography and clarifying the staging.
One change in this year's production involves the portrayal of Mary, as played by Alida Gunn, Tessler said. The Virgin Mother has traditionally been a nonspeaking character who maintains an otherworldly presence above the conflict around her. No more. Tessler wanted her to be more active, and the outspoken new Mary is unafraid to express her faith, her anger at injustice and her love for her husband (played by Bryant Enriquez). In this new incarnation, she becomes more human, and more relatable to us mere mortals in the audience. Jesse James Kamps returns as Lucifer, aided by minions played by Kat McIntosh, Ryan McMullen and David Felix.
The script, written by Guillermo Reyes, Max Branscomb and the so-called Pastorela Ghostwriters, openly embraces theatrical artifice, from the playfully rhymed dialogue to the cyclical plot structure. Devils scheme; angels intervene; and then they do it all over again. But it's the filling in of those outlines that makes A Tucson Pastorela such a joyful experience.
The writers are drawing on a centuries-old tradition. The skeleton of the play comes from Europe by way of Mexico, courtesy of the miracle and mystery plays that the medieval Catholic Church incorporated into its liturgical festivals. By retelling the stories of the Bible in street performances, the church aimed to engage and educate a largely illiterate populace.
Performers were either traveling actors or enthusiastic amateurs from the community. They embellished biblical stories—like La Pastorela—or morality tales, where archetypal mortals had to be saved from the grip of such characters as Gluttony and Lust.
Catholic missionaries brought this theatrical tradition from Spain to the Americas, using it to keep their flocks of converts on the path of orthodoxy. The Pastorela was performed in the New World as early as 1586 and became a Christmas tradition that still continues in communities across Mexico and the Southwest. (El Teatro Campesino filmed a version with Linda Ronstadt for PBS in 1991.)
Even in 1586, La Pastorela was not a stuffy affair. It combined religious devotion with low comedy, and formal ritual with wild dancing, in a mix of languages drawn from the surrounding community. And it is the celebratory populist spirit that the Borderlands Theater taps with its production.
Each performance even ends with a party: All the children in the audience are invited to come onstage and take a swing at a piñata.
The beauty of a living tradition is that it changes and grows to meet the needs and tastes of its community. Like a boisterous neighbor, A Tucson Pastorela cracks jokes and broadcasts its opinions on faith and society; you may or may not agree with the opinions, but you are still welcomed with open arms. You will never receive such an embrace from a Hollywood blockbuster.