The trouble with stories about the struggle of good against evil is that bad guys are so much more colorful, and therefore more entertaining, than heroes. That's especially true when the bad guy is the devil himself, whether we're talking about Milton's Paradise Lost, Al Pacino squaring off against Keanu Reeves in Devil's Advocate, or Albert Soto and his fiendish friends trying to outwit the angels and shepherds in our very own A Tucson Pastorela.
For the seventh year, Borderlands Theater is presenting its take on the traditional Latin-American Christmas pageant. Archangels Michael and Gabriel send a band of simple Mexican shepherds off to pay homage to the newborn Jesus in a barn in Belén. Now, Belén is the Spanish name for Bethlehem, but it also happens to be a town near Albuquerque, so the shepherds make their way north rather than east and discover the meaning of the old Mexican saying "So close to the United States, so far from God."
For Lucifer and his minions are patrolling the border, doing their best to thwart the rise to power of old Yahweh's son, and attempting to take over heaven while they're at it. They call it "regime change."
As usual, A Tucson Pastorela puts a humorous, up-to-date spin on the nativity story. The show, written in rhyming couplets by Max Branscomb and directed by Barclay Goldsmith, follows the conventions of traditional Mexican nativity plays, of which Goldsmith estimates there are 2,000 productions right about now. These pastorelas in turn derive from the mystery plays and miracle plays that developed in Europe in the Middle Ages. As dramatizations of Bible stories and legends of the saints moved out of the church and into the public square, the treatments became more secular, topical and funny, without forsaking piety (for the Irish version, see "Nollaig Shona," on this page). The devils and the fallible humans are objects of satire, but elements of the divine are treated with respect.
That's the one little problem with the warmly entertaining A Tucson Pastorela and other plays of its ilk: Michael and Gabriel show up in witty disguises and trade barbs with their adversaries, but they're such goody-two-shoes. Even a devout audience member with a sense of humor probably can't come away without having developed a little sympathy for the devil.
And the forces of evil are awfully appealing in this year's show. Albert Soto is a strutting, glowering Lucifer, the prototype of all rap stars. Soto throws himself into the role with such scowling gusto that he's probably going back to his day job at the Tucson/Pima Arts Council this week and turning down lots of grant proposals.
His main minions are Christina Walker as Satan and Matthew Copley as Moloch. Walker comes off like Meg Ryan in riot grrl mode, but with more of a snarl (think Addicted to Love), and Copley would be a perfect replacement for antagonist Daniel Stern in Home Alone 13: Macauley Culkin Goes to Hell (which, come to think of it, his career already has). They're eventually joined by Greed, personified, of course, by a CEO and played connivingly by the always spot-on Marissa Garcia.
Branscomb alters his script from year to year to keep up with the times, and the current version of A Tucson Pastorela finds Lucifer appearing to the shepherds as attorney general John Ashcroft, destroyer of fundamental liberties, and as the leader of one of those vigilante patrols that roam the border, packing extra clips of testosterone.
The archangels combat the False Ashcroft costumed as James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, doing their best to defend the Constitution, and take on the vigilantes as members of Samaritan Patrol. Rob Rowden and especially Rosanne Couston bring a lot of life to their roles, but if these are angels with dirty faces it's only because of the makeup. Branscomb refuses to poke even the gentlest fun at these do-gooders; giving them just a little vulnerability would make them better-rounded, more believable heroes.
Of course, believability isn't exactly the point of a play in which campesinos travel on foot, in a single night, from Mexico to the Belén of your choice while consorting with angels and devils, not to mention a talking dog and sheep. This play's point has to do with the possibility of goodness and tolerance among imperfect people in a troubled world. And the show nicely conveys that point with a fine balance of humor, hipness and just a little sentimentality. Not too much sentimentality, though; director Goldsmith, for one, has close enough connections to Samaritan Patrol and the Sanctuary Movement that he well knows the hardships of poor people crossing the border under unconventional circumstances.
As for the shepherds and their families, there are a lot of them onstage and even the children do a good job. Standouts among the adults are Arturo Martinez as the mildly gluttonous Bato, Maritza Dominguez as his wife, Lourdes Machado as the local troublemaker, and Hector M. Ayala as the hermit-storyteller.
As always, this is a kid-friendly production, and at the end the children in the audience are invited onstage to take a few whacks at a piñata. With all this, plus music from members of the A'Cim Waila Band, A Tucson Pastorela is an obligatory stop on any family's holiday rounds--one that will raise spirits, as well as consciousness.