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Angels in Tucson

Borderlands' 'A Tucson Pastorela' is entertaining as always.

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If you want Angels in America, forget HBO and Tony Kushner. Michael and Gabriel are right here in Southern Arizona, fending off evil so that poor Mexican shepherds can play their part in the Christmas story that is A Tucson Pastorela.

For the eighth season in a row, Borderlands Theater is presenting its annual pageant inspired by Latin American nativity plays. Every year, Max Branscomb writes a new script telling the same story, updated with topical funny business; although the story involves at least a bit of piety, it's not at all sanctimonious. Well, you might disagree if you're a conservative Republican, because the show does take liberal potshots at the hard right. Only in this script would Lucifer mention Strom Thurmond and Liberian ex-dictator Charles Taylor in the same foul breath.

Here, the archangel Michael has two left wings.

The good news this year--aside from the Christian concept of "good news"--is that the angels are getting funnier and scrappier. Last time, they seemed a bit too pure and serious to compete for the audience's affection with the unholy trinity of Lucifer, Satan and Molach. This time, Gabriel (Rob Rowden) has more fun at his job than is seemly for an angel, and Michael (Rosanne Couston) has to work to keep him in line.

The bad guys, in contrast, sometimes strain for material; they don't get quite as few laughs as usual. In part, this may be because their pop-culture references fly by at Dennis Miller warp speed, and may not have time to register with some members of the audience. Sometimes, though, Branscomb just finds it hard to get off a good, hot zinger in a rhyming couplet.

Unfortunately, the good shepherds and wandering souls are a lot less interesting this year. After an amusing prologue, in which half a dozen factions contentiously paint and paint over the A on Sentinel Peak, these characters are pretty much reduced to sheep (and I'm not even counting the one who is a sheep).

In the beginning, Bato (the appealing Arturo Martinez) does stuff a burrito into his mouth, reminding us that last year, his gluttony provided a major plot point; this time, though, Branscomb abandons any attempt to individualize him or the others. They just wander back and forth between the Ronstadt Transit Center on stage left and the Bashful Bandit (the biker bar serves as the gate of Hell) on stage right, singing Mexican carols and letting themselves be manipulated by devils and angels. Only the people-smuggler (David M. Felix) stands out, just because he's the dark element among the good folk.

The really dark elements--Cisiany Olivar as Satan, Matthew Staples as Molach and, as always, Albert Soto as Lucifer--do provide their share of naughty fun, with parodies of popular songs (brilliantly, Matthew Copley as the Deadly Sin Envy arrives singing "I Wanna Be Like You") and schemes to waylay the shepherds. They start with pop-culture seduction (American Idol), try patriotic coercion (Tom Ridge and the Department of Homeland Security) and finally resort to threats of mindless force (Ah-nolt).

The angels counter the devils by invoking some surprising cultural figures of their own, including, in Rowden's best bit, a certain pirate who moves like Keith Richards.

The A Cim Waila Band provides great local flavor, and at the end, all the children in the audience are invited onstage to take a few whacks at a piñata. One might cavil at some details, but A Tucson Pastorela remains fine holiday entertainment--and it sure beats The Nutcracker, A Christmas Carol and tinsel icicles for local relevance.

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