Holiday Pageantry

The performers in 'A Tucson Pastorela' seem more at ease this year--but where are all the local references?

Borderlands Theater's annual A Tucson Pastorela seems a bit better this year in many respects, even though there's less to almost every aspect of it: less reliance on joking rhymes, less solo singing, less local topicality, less of a set, even less of an audience last weekend.

The show has moved to the Leo Rich Theatre at TCC after several years at Pima Community College, and since this is the kind of production that attracts people who aren't the usual play-going crowd, some potential audience members may simply have resisted going downtown. Others may have been avoiding the congestion of the annual holiday parade last Saturday, when I attended. In any case, only about 100 people were at Saturday's show, far less than usual, and that group seemed even smaller in the bigger-than-usual theater.

It wasn't a very responsive crowd, either. If it weren't for the occasional squall of a baby--this is definitely a family show, with a piñata party at the end--the actors would have wondered if anybody had shown up. Part of the psychology of being a member of a group is that if nobody else in the group is laughing or clapping, we assume there's nothing worth laughing or clapping about, so perhaps they were inadvertently convincing themselves that it was a dull show. (Conversely, some filmmakers prefer critics to screen their movies as part of a regular audience, hoping that the general laughter will persuade the critics that the movies are funnier than they might otherwise think.) Perhaps the people in attendance simply hadn't kept up sufficiently with both trash TV and the news to get all the topical humor.

Admittedly, A Tucson Pastorela has its share of frayed edges and undigested bits. A friend of mine, new to Tucson, attended last year's production and came away with a low opinion of Borderlands' professionalism. But this is intentionally the least "professional" thing Borderlands does; it's part of a long Latin-American tradition, linked to Medieval European mystery plays, of community members putting on what is essentially a holiday pageant, a retelling of the Nativity story in verse that manages to poke fun at local figures and satirize local events from the past year without doing anything remotely blasphemous. (Unless your idea of apostasy is depicting the archangel Gabriel as an Elvis impersonator.)

The situation: Archangels Michael and Gabriel appear to a group of poor Mexicans crossing the border illegally and abandoned by their coyote, announcing the birth of the son of God in nearby Belén, and advising them it would be in their best interests to go pay their respects. Meanwhile, Lucifer and his minions Satan and Molach are outraged by God's incursion into what they consider their territory--Earth--and attempt to divert the border crossers from their path. They appear three times as tempters drawn from contemporary politics and pop culture, and just as they're about to seduce the pilgrims each time, Michael and Gabriel come to the rescue, disguised as cultural icons on the side of truth, justice and human rights (not to be confused with the American Way).

The pilgrims (led nicely by hapless everyman Arturo Martinez) enter and exit singing lovely Spanish-language carols. Lucifer (Albert Soto) snarls his way through parodies of rock songs, most notably "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction." His assistants (Cisiany Olivar as Satan and Matthew Copley as Molach) provide comic relief, abetted by this year's featured Deadly Sin, Anger (Matthew Staples). The angel characters (this time, Suzanne Darrell and Rob Rowden) continue to loosen up from year to year, and Rowden takes particular pleasure in Gabriel's antics.

What's good about this year's production includes a greater ease on stage. The actors playing the devils and the angels are always the most adept, but this time, everybody with a speaking part, right down to the most reticent shepherd, seems quite comfortable in the surroundings. (These campesinos, whether young or old, thin or otherwise, are a remarkably good-looking lot, too.) The actors, directed by past devil Christina Walker Rowden, don't stop short at the end of each of playwright Max Branscomb's couplets; the dialog flows more smoothly than in the past.

Also, the campesinos are better individualized than last year; they no longer seem like extras filling the space between the angels and the devils. Another attraction is, once again, the accompanying A:Cim Waila Band, which was boosted to four members last weekend from last year's two or three.

What's less satisfying is that, nine years in, Branscomb seems to be abandoning the all-important local elements in his script. The funny warm-up routine, spun off from last year's controversy over painting and repainting the "A" on Sentinel Peak, is about repainting the "A" different colors as a Homeland Security beacon. But that's the only truly local touch. One scene has the devils appearing as the forces behind the anti-immigrant Proposition 200, but that's a statewide and, in most ways, regional issue. Otherwise, Branscomb seems to have stayed in California and written a script that could be played anywhere along the border.

Furthermore, the battles between Good and Evil are a bit perplexing. In the past, Branscomb has, for example, had the angels appear as Founding Fathers in order to combat the depredations of John Ashcroft-like devils. But this time, Proposition 200 and the soul-sucking abuses of reality TV are fought by the likes of Elvis Presley and Aretha Franklin, and Shrek and Princess Fiona. What's the connection?

I suppose if everything fell neatly and logically into place, we'd be dealing with something that couldn't be called "faith." So in certain respects, A Tucson Pastorela is beyond criticism. Like religion, it works best if you just surrender to it and don't get exercised over the details that don't add up.

Although you may want to spend some time pondering the mystery of the cast member billed as "LaDesta Como te Llamas."

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