They've assembled all the shepherds, called all the angels, consigned a few devils and conscripted a quartet of teen gang-bangers into service. They've groomed their sheep and dog actors, hand-painted their Oaxacan-looking Palestine in lovely shades of lime green and indigo, and even hired a live band. For the fourth year running, they've commissioned a script by San Diego journalist and playwright Max Branscomb, written in verse and rife with topical humor comically fine-tuned to recall events of the past year here in Tucson. They've tacked up the clouds, suspended the buttery moon, and filled all the piñatas.
The only thing missing is an audience that isn't afraid to sing.
Mind you, it isn't just the singing. It's also the clapping, the calling out, the willingness to step forward when invited on stage. But the singing comes earliest in the production, and seems most intimidating. If we could overcome that, all the remaining elements of being a good, participatory audience might fall into place.
The problem is not a lack of enthusiasm, but a dearth of confidence. If it makes anyone feel better, we'll blame it on television's rise as the unchallenged ruler of popular entertainment. That is what the majority of Americans spend their leisure time viewing, and generally speaking, Americans over the age of 4 are not inspired to sing along with their favorite programs. I do believe we're the poorer for it.
So it seemed at last Sunday's standing-room-only matinee, where the bleachers were full of spectators but starving for participants. When the motley, extended family of shepherds, animals and vatos burst onto the stage to lead the audience in an opening round of "Jingle Bells," those metal bleacher seats were like a lightning rod for the electric current of fear racing through the audience a split second before a general sense of obligation and obedience coaxed them into a mumbled apology of nearly inaudible sound.
In a word, it was pathetic, and for no fault of the energetic cast including four-year pastorela veterans Arturo Martinez, Camila Tessler, Hector Ayala, Annabelle Nuñez and Albert Soto.
The undeniable fact is that singing in public has largely fallen out of favor in contemporary American society. A long, rich multi-cultural history it may have, but over the years I've noticed nothing produces a meek audience faster than an invitation to make noise. In Tucson, that "invisible wall" between audience and performer verges at times on becoming an impenetrable fortress. Is this reticence a trademark of the reclusive West, or has it gone national? I really don't know.
But I do know we have it in us to do better. The pastorela, though still evolving in Borderland's capable hands as a renewed local tradition, is one of the region's most enduring folk arts, dating back more than 400 years. A Tucson Pastorela joins the ranks of more than 2,500 such productions performed during the Christmas season throughout Mexico and the Southwestern United States, stretching from the 270-seat Lyceum Theater in downtown San Diego to the dustiest corner of Sonora and smallest mountain villages of Oaxaca. (For a quick study, pick up a $5 copy of Borderlands' 30-page La Pastorela: A Shepherd's Trek Through the Millennium.)
And what do all these productions have in common? Among other things, people sing. Off-key, in harmony, in Spanish, English, Yaqui, you name it. They make noise, and I promise you, absolutely no harm comes of it.
Branscomb's revised Tucson edition continues the theme of the ultimate battle between good and evil, with the New Testament story of the shepherds' trek to Bethlehem as its basic structure. But within that traditional framework, characters ranging from urban gang-bangers to teletubbies -- with archangels and devils alternately disguised as Aztec deities, revolutionary Mexican soldiers, Star Wars characters and major-league baseball players -- dole out one-liners about local politics and perform updates to pop songs like Ricky Martin's "La Vida Loca."
Sure, it's ridiculous; but you'll find its wordplay is far from irrelevant. As Branscomb writes in his essay on the recreation of this shepherds' trek, "Life is the ultimate journey. From the moment we draw our first breath to the day we die, we are traveling." If you buy the ticket, folks, go ahead and take the ride. In honor of this momentous occasion that comes but once a year, make a joyful noise unto the horde!
A Tucson Pastorela, a Borderlands Theatre production, continues through December 19 at the PCC West Campus Black Box Theater, 2202 W. Anklam Road. Show time is 7 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, with matinees at 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $12, $4 for children 12 and under. Student rush tickets ($8) are available 15 minutes before show time. Call 882-7406 for reservations and information.