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Tradition With a Twist 

Borderlands' 'A Tucson Pastorela' celebrates its 15th year

Can a Christmas play containing references to the Tea Party, Betty White, Avatar and Gov. Jan Brewer be considered folklore?

Absolutely, according to renowned Tucson folklorist Jim Griffith.

"Folklore is innovative in spirit," Griffith says. "A tradition proceeds from its roots, but it dies if it doesn't continue to put out new shoots."

This year, Griffith is taking part in one of Tucson's perpetually green cultural offshoots: A Tucson Pastorela. With a new script and focus each year, it's been presented annually for the last 15 years by Borderlands Theater, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary.

The Pastorela has roots deep in theatrical tradition, originating in the liturgical dramas of Europe. Told in rhyming couplets, the story recounts the shepherds' journey with Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, thwarting the machinations of a band of wily devils along the way. The play was imported to Latin America by Catholic missionaries, who incorporated elements of indigenous culture to make it more appealing to their new converts.

Likewise, A Tucson Pastorela draws upon Tucson's own local culture—and Arizona's politics—by using anachronistic, pop-cultural gags.

The cast mixes professionals with enthusiastic amateurs. In addition to Griffith as the banjo-playing Cowboy Angel, the cast this year includes Arizona Opera's Arnulfo Velasquez, who lends his rich voice to the harmonizing Three Kings. Local jazz singer Darwin has stepped in to become the archangel Michael. He magically transforms his deep baritone and tall frame each time the angel appears in disguise.

Familiar faces abound as well. Magdalena Colchado and Bryant Enriquez reprise their roles as Mary and Joseph, as do most of the shepherds. As Crespo the lamb and Popo the dog, Gabriela Nugent and Jeremy Yoyetewa still have the energy to literally run circles around the cast as everyone sings to the music of the Pastorela's resident waila band, Gertie and the T.O. Boys.

This year's Lucifer is longtime Pastorela music director Jim Klingenfus. Still responsible for arranging the show's songs—which bounce from Mexican folk songs to show tunes to Lady Gaga—Klingenfus is clearly enjoying his time in the spotlight. Gleefully chewing up the stage with every song and bad joke, he's flanked by his minions, the wonderfully buffoonish devils Annabelle Nunez and Emilio Zweig.

One new-yet-familiar face can be found in the role of Soledad the hermit. That performer is Barclay Goldsmith, artistic director and co-founder of the company 25 years ago.

Goldsmith insists his appearance is not connected to Borderlands' anniversary, but the casting choice does seem like an appropriate honor.

As a young man during the 1960s, Goldsmith says he was inspired by the theater he saw while living in Argentina and Mexico.

"I was particularly moved by how theater in both countries was used to express issues that were important to the audience," he remembers.

He eventually returned to Tucson and formed Teatro Libertad in 1970. Modeled on California's El Teatro Campesino, Teatro Libertad was a collective that performed political "street theater" at events and parades. But by 1986, Goldsmith felt the need for a more formally structured theater, and he co-founded Borderlands with a group of similarly minded artists.

Goldsmith says he's proud that "we've expanded to include audiences and voices that have not been typically seen onstage here. I think one of the things that's important is to have audiences understand that stories are universal."

Borderlands has partnered with other theaters across the U.S. and Mexico. For example, this year's Arizona: No Roosters in the Desert, a border play commissioned by Borderlands, had a "rolling premiere": It opened in Mexico City in August and will play in Chicago in late winter.

Goldsmith credits Borderlands' longevity not only to its collaborators but to its committed board and staff. Playwright Toni Press-Coffman has served as literary manager for the past eight years. Alida Wilson-Gunn, once a student of Goldsmith's at Pima Community College, began performing with the company in 1990. She is now the education director.

Eva Zorrilla Tessler, the associate artistic director, first worked with Borderlands in 1994 as a choreographer for a bilingual production of Federico García Lorca's Blood Wedding. She choreographed the Pastorela for years before taking on directing duties as well five years ago.

The 15-year-old Pastorela is now the longest-running theatrical event in Tucson, and Tessler jokes that it's Borderlands' version of The Nutcracker.

While the Pastorela is exuberant and fun, it is no carefree Christmas fantasy. This year's script, created by Wendy Burk and Eric Magrane, along with "a whole lot of ghostwriters," is especially dark. Many of the jokes try to exorcise the political ghosts of this past year—SB 1070 among them—by holding them up to ridicule, in the hope that next year will be better.

The story is always built around a contemporary man or woman who is somehow transported back in time to join the shepherds on their journey. This year, that character is a soldier returned from fighting in Iraq; he's played convincingly by Jason Chavez. The devils' torments of the soldier take the form of PTSD episodes, and the rescuing angels don't seem quite as powerful as they once did.

Yet there's no question that good will triumph in the end. The shepherd pilgrims, flawed and weak though they are, will somehow manage once again to usher the Virgin Mother to Bethlehem, to bring goodness incarnate into the world.

"This is a very reverent play," says Griffith.

Can a play in which Lucifer appears in the form of Ted Nugent really be called reverent?

"Well," replies Griffith, "reverent about the important stuff."

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