Laughs for the Holidays

A Tucson tradition and a traveling one-man show brighten up these dark December days

In case you haven't noticed, it's getting dark around here.

The sun has become quite lazy and has cut back its hours, even in this time of high unemployment. But it's a pretty secure job—union, I think—so we're stuck. Folks all over town have been pitching in, putting strings of lights in trees and lighting candles to help brighten up the place. And creative theater types have come up with a couple of shows to help us laugh—quite literally—in the face of the sun's laziness.

One play is local in its origin, and the other is, by many accounts, one of the funniest one-man shows on the planet.

For the 16th year, Borderlands Theater is staging the ever-charming and constantly evolving A Tucson Pastorela. Basically, it's an embellished story of the baby Jesus' birth. As you may recall, there were shepherds out minding their sheep, and out of nowhere came the voice of God, telling them some exciting news involving a baby—and that they'd better get over to Bethlehem. Well, just as we often get sidetracked when we're searching for important things, those poor shepherds are beset with all manner of events that try to interrupt their journey. The plot thickens, and there's a bit of conflict, as any good story has—but in a really fun sort of way.

Director Eva Zorrilla Tessler can't even remember the number of Pastorela productions she's directed. "I've lost count. Maybe six years," she says; she does know she's served "either as a director or choreographer for 15 out of 16 productions." Tessler, who is the associate artistic director of Borderlands, says audiences enjoy the show because "it is a festive, silly and heartfelt play with a hearty local flavor—perfect for the holidays."

Musician and sound designer Jim Klingenfus has also been a part of this Tucson tradition for much of its life, and has been musical director for the last three years. Last year, he was also given a plum role: Lucifer. He considers it quite an honor. "He's the chief bad guy. He and his minions, Satan and Moloch, are the ones who conspire to get the shepherds to ignore their orders from God to get to Bethlehem." Each year, Klingenfus says, these evil guys enlist one of the Seven Deadly Sins to assist in their sabotage. "This year, it's Sloth."

The music is an important element of the show. There's a mixture of traditional and contemporary songs—some in Spanish, and others in English. "The traditional carols are recognizable even in Spanish, and we have great fun using current pop songs. The structure of the piece stays the same," Klingenfus says, "but we always work in new stuff about current events and local politics and culture. Adults and children get a kick out of this—it's uniquely Tucson."

Says Tessler: "We allow a sense of playfulness to guide us." That way, the show can help us "rediscover a sense of wonder."

The Invisible Theatre is also bringing us some theatrical levity to help brighten the darkness.

Steve Solomon, who earlier this year brought to our fair city his one-man play My Mother's Italian, My Father's Jewish and I'm in Therapy, returns with further personal and penetrating insights (not) into the insane group of individuals who constitute what we know as family. My Mother's Italian, My Father's Jewish and I'm Home for the Holidays will be here for two performances next week.

"Steve comes up with brilliant titles," IT managing artistic director Susan Claassen says with a laugh. "You know exactly what you're going to get."

Speaking by telephone from his home in South Florida, where he was taking a 14-hour respite from 28 performances scheduled across the country in December, Solomon says he is looking forward to returning to Tucson.

"The audiences were great. They absolutely got it," he says. "That doesn't happen all the time. Sometimes, they just stare—you can hear them shifting in their seats and saying, 'Ma, is this guy supposed to be funny?'"

That statement doesn't sound as funny on the page as it did on the phone, because you don't get to hear the way Solomon said it. And that's a big part of the magic of Solomon and his shows: He may be just one lone man up there, but you would swear there's a company of 20. So amazing is he in his mimicry that you instantly recognize the character he is channeling, and in the next instant, you realize that he's channeling yet another.

"He is so vivid in his transformations," Claassen says, "that you know exactly who he is and where, and you feel you're right in the same room with everyone."

Says Solomon, who was raised in Brooklyn, "I've been around accents all my life. I worked as a delivery guy for a Chinese restaurant when I was a kid, and people would never let me in to bring them their food if I just spoke as myself. So I started announcing my delivery in a Chinese accent, and the door would open right up."

The key characters in the upcoming show are based on real people, loving exaggerations of uncles, aunts and cousins, says Solomon, who claims he had a wonderful upbringing and has never been in therapy. But the holidays always bring special challenges, and he promises we will recognize ourselves and our own families as he shares his.

"His humor is universal, and it's never mean-spirited," Claassen says of Solomon. "He's actually a lovely and charming guy, a real mensch."

So what if it's dark outside? If you need to lighten things up, here are two pretty good bets.