Have Yourself a Very Liberal Christmas

Though it's a little rougher around the edges than normal, 'A Tucson Pastorella' is still a delight

So you walk into this family theater show, and they hand you a glossary so you'll understand all the references. Right after Harry Potter comes Pol Pot; the last few items, in order, are Idi Amin, Randy Graf, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Paris Hilton and FEMA. On your way out, after the cast of shepherds and angels and devils has sung Christmas carols in Spanish and kids in the audience have whacked candy out of a piñata, the ushers try to give you a yard sign that says "Humanitarian aid is never a crime."

It's right-wing talk-radio's worst nightmare: A Tucson Pastorella, telling the shepherds' role in the Christmas story while exposing children and adults alike to 90 minutes of cockeyed liberal outrage and frisky community activism. The shepherds are undocumented Mexican migrant workers, and God is on their side.

This is the 10th year that Borderlands Theater has presented its own Tucson-customized version of the traditional Latin-American Christmas play, scripted by Max Branscomb with the help of the casual malefactors in your daily newspaper.

For a very long time, Latin American communities have mounted their own folkloristic Christmas pageants, telling of the poor shepherds called to attend the birth of Jesus. It's no easy journey; along the way, they are tempted and almost thwarted by the forces of darkness, but with archangels Michael and Gabriel watching out for them, they make it to the manger on time.

It's also an opportunity for community members to wag their fingers at public figures local and otherwise, working anachronistic contemporary references into the 2,000-year-old tale. Borderlands Theater from the beginning has been devoted to social justice as well as good theater, so A Tucson Pastorela is always an opportunity for the company to advocate for the region's downtrodden and poke the unjust with the sharp end of a shepherd's walking stick.

Because the Tucson Pastorella is conceived as a community event, it calls into service nonprofessional actors as well as seasoned hands. Inevitably, it's rougher around the edges than Borderlands' usual fare, but what are you expecting--Cirque du Soleil de Bethléem?

Opening night of this year's show, however, was a bit rockier than usual. There were almost enough insouciantly dropped lines and missed cues to make you wonder if you hadn't wandered into the Gaslight Theatre. No doubt the show will tighten up after a few performances; rehearsal time was short, and many members of this year's cast are in it for only the first or second time (until now, the company has used many of the same people year after year). The whole thing is being presented under the pall of the sudden death of the Pastorela's longtime Lucifer, Albert Soto.

Lucifer is generally the most interesting, dynamic character, and Soto's eminently worthy successor is Richard Ragsdale. Wisely, he doesn't try to reproduce Soto's glaring, sneering characterization, but does a devil all his own, something elegant, foppish, a little Miltonian. His singing of his parody songs wouldn't take him to the finals of American Idol, but that's not what this show is about.

Rob Rowden is a hipster Gabriel, employing not a horn but air guitar. Martie van der Voort makes her impressive Pastorella debut as a rowdy Goth Satan, and Arturo Martinez is, as always, a very sympathetic if befuddled shepherd leader. I wish I could remember which of the shepherds is the antagonist from within; the actress in the role--a Pastorela newcomer, if I'm not mistaken--plays her with real understanding. She's not bad or selfish, as this figure sometimes turns out in Branscomb's scripts; she's a bitter realist, angry, dedicated to the survival of her family group. When the friendly neighborhood drug smuggler shows up and offers to help the shepherds, she assumes the guy is a diseased terrorist; obviously, she's been reading too many Leo W. Banks articles.

Several other members of the large ensemble may be more earnest than polished, but again, this is supposed to be grassroots community theater. It's curious, though, why Marisa Garcia, a fine actress who did a great job as one of the Seven Deadly Sins a couple of years ago, is merely assigned a couple of stand-and-deliver songs as the Star of Belen. (Was she supposed to sing three times but missed her first entrance, or did Gabriel try to throw her a cue a whole scene too early?)

Anyway, John Longhofer's scenic design is clean and streamlined, and the whole show gets its lilt and rhythm from Gertie Lopez and the T.O. Boys (the artists formerly known as the A'Cim Waila Band).

Even if you've seen A Tucson Pastorela before, there is enough new material to bring you back every year. Where else can you see devils disguised as leaders of the Minuteman Project vanquished by angels demonstrating for No More Deaths/No Mas Muertos, or a Darth Vader figure faced down by a Latino Jedi called Obi Juan Kenobi?

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