A 'Pastorela' and a 'Pageant'

One fine holiday show pokes fun at current events, while another fine holiday show pokes fun at holiday shows

Last weekend brought two more Christmas shows to local theaters: one new, and one tried and true.

The new one is Joe Marshall's self-explanatory The Gayest Christmas Pageant Ever! The familiar work is the sort of thing that Marshall gently sends up: Borderlands Theater's annual A Tucson Pastorela. This is the 13th year for the Pastorela, yet it's the freshest holiday script Max Branscomb has produced in a long time.

As you probably know unless you're fresh from under the Christmas tree, A Tucson Pastorela carries on a centuries-old tradition of Christmas pageants in which ordinary folk enact the nativity story while scolding or at least poking fun at those who have sinned during the past year. The Borderlands version always casts the shepherds on their way to Bethlehem as impoverished Hispanic migrants of some sort. Along the way, they are almost swayed from their path by Lucifer and his minions, who appear as a variety of unsavory pop-culture icons. But the demons are vanquished, at least temporarily, by the angels Michael and Gabriel, who impersonate celebrities you're less likely to find in the scandal sheets.

Each production follows the same pattern, although the specifics of the characters, including the shepherds, change from year to year. More often than not, it has seemed that Branscomb assumes we're familiar with how the Pastorela goes, and as he tweaks the details, some of the basic dramatic scaffolding falls by the wayside. This year, happily, Branscomb seems to have made a fresh start; the stakes are more explicit for the bad guys and the good; the backstory of Lucifer's conflict with God is spelled out clearly; and the token contemporary kid tagging along on the journey is worked into the story much better than usual.

So what else is new? Jason Chavez brings freshness to the role of Juan, the Tohono O'odham boy who only wants to try out for the UA football team but ultimately plays a pivotal role in the defeat of Lucifer. Said Prince of Darkness is played this year by Jesse James Kamps, coming off like Boy George gigging with Kiss and tempting us with songs like "Take a Chance on Me."

Emily Pratt and Noemi Zavala give lively performances as two of Lucifer's henchmen, and, as the skeptic within the shepherd group, Kat McIntosh makes the often disagreeable character of Menga seem selfish only because she's sincerely interested in her group's survival. The single-named Darwin and Camila Tessler are quite good as the archangels, but they're naturally overshadowed by the antics of the bad guys.

Because I watch very little TV, I'm mystified by some of the personalities the bad guys assume, but nobody could miss the swipes at payday-loan sharks and Sarah Palin. Oddly, neither John McCain nor Barack Obama figure significantly in this year's topical references. Other missing items: a new set (John Longhofer's broken arches were recycled from a previous production) and a sufficiently large audience. Some 200 people showed up on opening night, but only about 50 attended the following performance.

Also, Jesus does not appear in this year's production; he's too busy preparing for his Jan. 20 inauguration.

Meanwhile, the Alternative Theatre Company bids farewell to Tucson (its movers and shakers are moving to New York City) with The Gayest Christmas Pageant Ever! It's an original script by Joe Marshall (who also directs), wherein a gay community theater troupe tries to mount a holiday production despite petulant playwrights, assorted prima donnas and a generally low level of competence among the volunteer performers.

Theater-fiasco plays can be hilarious--Noises Off is the classic example--because it's just so much fun to watch things fall apart, except maybe U.S. foreign policy. Oddly, for a play of this genre, Marshall spends less than half of the show documenting the pageant's disintegration into chaos; he actually prefers to develop his characters a bit, and tries to reconcile potentially conflicting messages about inclusiveness and the need for members of a "different" community to band together.

The show isn't nearly as campy as you might expect, although a couple of queens and a humorless dyke or two do mingle with the wide variety of other types (including a stoned but sexually straight tech guy who tries to fit in with all the queer cheer). And, yes, Jesus does show himself to a couple of characters who may or may not be hallucinating.

There's some funny material here, and some sincere material, and it's a very pleasant way for anyone, gay or straight, to pass an evening in the theater. On the other hand, Marshall hasn't shaped the action in the most effective way possible; the second act features a disastrous rehearsal of the pageant, but Marshall elects not to escalate the chaos when the scene shifts to opening night. The overall pacing is a bit uneven, depending on who's onstage and how comfortable they are.

As so often happens, the most extravagant characters push the others to the side, so the flamboyant Roby Schapira and Nick Cianciotto, and the delightfully awful Maria Alburtus, consistently steal scenes from the steadier Rene Skinner, Scott O'Brien, Teresa Vasquez and Laura McMillan, among others.

As the run continues, the production will surely tighten here and loosen up there. Even as it stands, it's good entertainment that takes pot shots at everyone in sight--but, in the holiday spirit, never in a mean way.

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