Wednesday, November 25, 2009
The trite routine of Christmas accoutrements trotted out every year – Santa, shopping, carols, trees – can get tiresome. Thankfully, two unique theater companies are providing potent antidotes by staking out opposite ends of the holiday spectrum.
With the ribald and raunchy Reindeer Monologues, Paper Wing Theatre sates cynical hearts wearied of overly sweet holiday themes. El Teatro Campesino, meanwhile, hearkens to the humble origins of the Nativity story and its promise of salvation – a purer time before corporations seized the theme of charity and ran it into the harried zone of holiday shopping – presenting a traditional story that speaks to yearning souls.
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First, the profane. No one, locally, does gritty, adult-oriented stuff like Paper Wing. This year PWT reprises The Eight: Reindeer Monologues, written by Jeff Goode, the prolific creator of MTV’s Undressed and the plays Marley’s Ghost and Larry and the Werewolf.
This time around Paper Wing’s moving the box office and the concession stand into the auditorium, where patrons will buy tickets and refreshments from one of the characters of the play, the half-man/half-reindeer (a “rein-man,” jokes director Lj Brewer) bartender of the Admiral’s Sunken Ice Hole. As the audience bellies up to the bar, the actors trickle in, costumed and in character as Santa’s eight reindeer, taking their places in the Admiral as the audience members take their seats.
The reindeer are threatening to strike instead of putting up with Santa’s abuse, and have convened at the Admiral to air their grievances. In addition to their own aches – told bitch session-like – they rally around an allegation that he raped Vixen (Heather Hahn). Cupid (Jay DeVine), a flaming gay reindeer, doesn’t believe the charge, postulating that it’s a publicity stunt to coincide with Vixen’s Playboy shoot, and insinuating that Mrs. Claus isn’t the only “ho, ho, ho.”
Blitzen (Koly McBride), on the other hand, is a frau-German femme-Nazi who supports Vixen unequivocally – never mind the rumor that she and Vixen have had “doe-to-doe” relations. And so on.
Trashy? Yes. Goofy? Check. Good? Depends. It hinges on the debasement of the sacred ideals of Christmas with the sensationalistic aspects of f***ed-up lives. But last year, despite earning respectable audiences, it felt dated. This stuff might have felt fresh were it not for reality TV, tell-all books and George Carlin. Chuck Messenger plays Dasher as a gung-ho sergeant from Full Metal Jacket. That movie came out in 1987.
Fortunately, the play is malleable.
“I had communication with the author,” says McBride. “Republicans, the news, pop culture – it’s all going to come and go. Goode wants to see what [the play] evolves into.”
So theater companies are invited to change it to reflect the times: Instead of a spoof Sarah Palin character, we have Peter Eberhart playing Comet as a Rush Limbaugh/Sean Hannity parody. Prancer is a “hip, slick” cat played by Drew Davis-Wheeler as a version of hot, urban, black comedian Cat Williams and his pimp style. Sounds savvy.
Those contributions should strengthen this modern, deconstructionist take on the mighty Christmas parable, one that gives the fa-la-la-la-la and the buy, buy, buy an unabashed middle finger.
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Now, the profound. Luis Valdez adapted the Biblical Nativity story into La Pastorela (“The Shepherds”), but with Teatro Campesino’s unique proletariat take. Instead of honing in on the Christ-child and the Three Kings, he focused on the story of the shepherds who made the perilous journey to the manger. It alternates each year with its “sequel,” La Virgen del Tepeyac, which last year was incarnated as a colorful, overwhelming experience pumped up with elaborate costumes and powerful music.
“La Pastorela is bigger than La Virgen,” says Teatro publicist-musician Stephanie Woehrmann.
Though it’s a traditional take, the daring Teatro has done the story with Biblical characters Santa Cruz Weekly describes as “cyborgs from nuclear power plants and rock stars with bleached spikes.” In 1980 Valdez collaborated on a PBS televised version with Linda Ronstadt and Cheech Marin. This year they’re reverting to its earlier, folkier, ’70s acoustic roots.
“It was originally done in the streets of San Juan [Bautista],” Woehrmann says. “It was a puppet show. One year it rained, but the Mission [San Juan Bautista] invited them inside, and it’s been at the mission since 1980.”
True to Teatro’s M.O., women play key roles that men usually inhabit: Santanas, aka Satan, is played by Christy Sandoval; the Hermit is played by Romina Memoli; the Angel of the Lord is played by Jillian Mitchell (a “powerhouse singer,” says Woehrmann).
Though in Spanish with an English libretto (printed lyrics), Woehrmann, who doesn’t habla, says non-Spanish speakers can follow the story because of Teatro’s opera-like expressive dance choreography and music. Feliz Navidad.