Teatro Vivo's La Pastorela
This new take on the old Christmas tale has the shepherds' rough edges but a heart of gold
Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., Dec. 18, 2015
They look a little scruffy, to be honest. Worn jeans and work shirts, a hoodie here, a gimme cap there. Small pots and skillets to cook in. Thin blankets to cover themselves as they sleep under the stars, the only pillows for their heads their weathered suitcases. And that one guy with the ratty gray mane and Old Testament-prophet beard – you can see the stink on him, and from a mile away. These hardly look like the regal figures of a religious pageant.
But then one speaks of their search for the Christ child, and things click into place. These are the shepherds of the Nativity story, those people of the working class who were modest of means by worldly measure, but exceedingly rich in faith. They seek the newborn Son of God because that faith compels them to, and part of their place in the tale is to help show us how He comes not in the form of a king but as a common man. Royalty may kneel before the babe, but He sleeps on hay in a manger, as with those of humble birth, and He is one of them.
La Pastorela gives us the Christmas story from the viewpoint of the shepherds as they make their long pilgrimage to see the infant Jesus, determined but also weary and beset by devils – literally – who tempt them to abandon their holy path. Teatro Vivo's current take on this 500-year-old, continuously reinvented yuletide drama is much in keeping with the lowly status of its wayfaring protagonists. In addition to their humble clothes (supplied by costume designer Anya Reyes), the set by Zac Crofford is a simple structure of plywood platforms with burlap netting laid over them to suggest rocky desert terrain. There's no attempt to disguise its plainness or rough edges, as there isn't with the shepherds, and you can imagine it being their own handiwork, built with the same spirit that drives them as they watch their flocks: unassuming, conscientious, steadfast.
That spirit pervades the whole show, even when it's being jokey – which is much of the time. Rupert Reyes, who penned the script and staged the production, gives his devils ample room for comic mockery (with Adam Martinez making the most of his opportunities, especially as a low-rent lowrider whose vehicle is a plastic kiddie car tied around his waist), but he allows the angels their fun, too. When Andie Flores' glittery San Miguel spreads her shiny, translucent butterfly wings, she becomes a dancing diva, and you know there's no way that Jesus I. Valles-Morales' Luzbel, fierce and menacing and glitter-coated as he is, can best her. The whole dance-floor showdown is a hoot, as is the gift of a dance that that stinky Hermit (Donato Rodriguez, gruff and sweet in equal measure) gives to the Christ child (it's James Brown's "Get Up Offa That Thing"). But the humor comes from a place of playfulness rather than ridicule. This is a gift to a community for which the Nativity is more than a story; it's an expression of deep belief, in God coming into the world, becoming flesh, becoming one of us.
The significance of that and our response to it came through movingly in a moment near the end of Sunday's matinee, when the Schroeder-Arce family – Roxanne, Carlos, and daughter Genevieve – stepped from the audience onto the stage and performed "The Little Drummer Boy" with just a guitar, snare drum, and their voices. I've never heard the song delivered with such humility and grace, the sense of having so little to give someone of such importance coming through so clearly. The gift of the drummer boy fused with the gift of this ritual of faith and the gift of this production to the community in a beautifully meaningful way. Scruffy on the outside, maybe, but on the inside a heart of pure gold.
La PastorelaEmma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center, 600 River
Through Dec. 20
Running time: 1 hr., 50 min.