Pertinent Pageantry

Thoughtfulness is replaced with gentle laughs in this year's 'Tucson Pastorela'

Max Branscomb is back as the writer of Borderlands Theater's annual A Tucson Pastorela. That means the retelling of Lucifer's attempts to waylay the shepherds making their way to Bethlehem has returned to its old rhythm of gentle laughs.

Last year's more thoughtful treatment by Toni Press-Coffman has mostly fallen by the wayside (although she's still credited as a provider of "additional material"), and that's a pity, but it also makes sense: The nativity story has everything to do with faith, and hardly anything to do with reason. If you think too hard about what's going on, you may miss the message.

This is the 12th annual Tucson twist on a centuries-old tradition wherein a community puts on a Christmas pageant that manages to poke fun at contemporary foibles; it finds a nose-pierced Catalina High School student somehow joining up with an assortment of highly fallible shepherds on the way to the place Spanish speakers call Belén. (There's a good bit of Spanish draped like tinsel upon the script, but it won't give English speakers any trouble.) The journey is not easy. Lucifer and his henchmen, Satan and Moloch, want to seduce the shepherds into sin; it's part of their effort to foil God's plan to save humanity by plopping his own son into the world.

Satan and Moloch are a little depressed in the beginning, because it looks like more and more of the work of the devil is being outsourced to the humans themselves; who needs temptation when people are already so adept at sinning? But the pre-emptive strike on the followers of Jesus seems like just the thing to get Lucifer's minions back in the game. If only they weren't up against the humans' formidable protectors, the archangels Michael and Gabriel.

This Pastorela is as topical and localized as ever. It begins with a funny scene inspired by the recent Mexican-flag flap at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum; here, it's the animals rather than people who are in the middle of it. As we get down to the main action, a stuttering shepherdess named Estrella (Amy Erbe) drives away some menacing devils by singing a Beatles song. This is an indication of how much help humans need; somebody should tell Estrella that a more effective all-around repellent from the 1960s would be Rod McKuen.

Michael and Gabriel use questionable weapons themselves. Really, how long can you keep evil away with a Village People medley? And since when was Lalo Guerrero's irrepressible "Vamos a Bailar" a tool of the devil? Well, since Guerrero's son Dan was cast as Lucifer and asked to lip-synch to his dad's 1940s recording of the song. Guerrero is Borderlands' third Embodiment of Evil since the death Albert Soto, the longtime Lucifer, and while Guerrero may lack Soto's Cheney-like sneer, he is a model of strutting exasperation. Emily Pratt and Noemi Zavala play his minions with gusto.

On the side of good, we have the commanding Darwin Hall as Michael, turning the formidable archangel into a hearty black Baptist preacher with a flair for R&B and a perfect Satchmo impersonation. Gabriel is played by Camila Tessler less like a silly sidekick (the usual manner) than as an athletic and intrepid companion. She also does a terrific Emma Watson impression, magic wand and all.

The shepherds and animals are played by a mix of professional actors and amateurs. Among the standouts are Cisiany Olivar as the kvetching Menga and Julia Matias as the stalwart Soledad. As the Three Kings, Mark Gordon Allen, Jim Klingenfus and Alejandro Ramos provide the finest singing in the show; too bad they have only one number.

The backup band, as usual, is Gertie Lopez and the T.O. Boyz, not quite as tight and on cue on opening night as in the past, but it's nothing that wouldn't improve after another performance or two. The amplification wasn't always reliable on opening night, but the other elements worked just fine, especially John Longhofer's simple but effective broken-arch set, and Elizabeth Blair's costumes, which ranged from the realistic (the shepherds) to the goth-whimsical (the devils) to the intentionally folksy (the animals).

The show runs 90 minutes, with no intermission, and the reward to patient children in the audience is a little onstage piñata party at the very end.