Review: Nuestra Pastorela by Teatro Vivo
by Michael Meigs
This weekend we attended Teatro Vivo's Nuestra Pastorela on Thursday and Zach Theatre's Christmas Carol on Friday, so as K. commented, we're now well prepared for the Christmas season.
For Mexican and Tejano communities the pastorela tradition is as fundamental as Dickens' Christmas fable is for English speakers. The differences are immense and instructive.
Dickens published his novella in 1843. Franciscan friars established the pastorela tradition soon after the conquista. One of the earliest documented instances was La Comedia de los Reyes in Cuernavaca in 1527. The friars drew on popular Spanish custom of short didactic theatre pieces to instruct the Nahuatl and other indigenous communities in the story of Jesus. Similar to short comic stage pieces -- sainetes -- the plays often featured a young shepherdess (pastorela) as one of those visited by angels at night in the fields. The plays centered upon the journey of Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem and the efforts of the shepherds to understand and participate in the miracle that was occurring. The angel Gabriel often appears in characterization that may be comic, serious or commanding.
The pastorela -- sometimes called a posada (inn) -- is generally a simple comic story prominently featuring cocky scheming devils who do everything they can to mislead and block the shepherds. We all know the forces of darkness will fail -- after all, the Bible tells us so. One delight is seeing the strutting arrogant bad guys get their comeuppance. Another is the comfort of witnessing and thereby participating in the story of the origins of Christianity.
Dickens' story is one of individual sin, redemption and charity, all in a rigidly class-bound society. The pastorela story is one of revelation, the struggle between embodied evil and unsophisticated humankind that desires to understand a miracle and gain access to divinity.
The Austin community has produced an annual pastorela for a long time, reaching certainly back well before the 2007 opening of the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican-American Cultural Center (MACC) where it's now on stage Thursdays - Saturdays until December 18. Each year's production is sui generis, a one-time collaboration of volunteers, so the details, costumes, characters and even the time-setting can vary from year to year.
This year Teatro Vivo is producing Nuestra Pastorela. That nuestra (our) refers less to the theatre group, now formally resident at the MACC, than to the wider Tejano and Mexican heritage. Founders Rupert Reyes and JoAnn Carrion-Reyes were not directly involved in the project; artistic director Mario Ramírez greeted the public on opening night. The script is by David Lozano and Jeffry Farrell. Direction is by Ricky Ramón.
The audience files into the MACC auditorium to discover a jumble of scenery with members of the acting company wandering across the playing area, doing warm-up exercises or chatting with others, like a commedia dell'arte ensemble preparing for a show. A young couple conversing in audience seats at stage right rises and starts to cross toward the exit -- an event that suddenly precipitates the action. With a dramatic lighting change, actor freeze and music, suddenly the Luzbel devils are upon us: big Adam A. Martinez in his wild red-plaid suit, matching tie and jaunty red horns, and Chelsea Rodriguez, voluptuously slinky, clad all in black.
"This is Luzbel's show!" they proclaim to us and proceed to magic up the proceedings. They transform shepherds into red-nose clowns and deprive them of speech except for semi-nonsensical blurts, mostly in garbled Spanish. The Mama clown (Marina deYoe-Pedraza) is benevolent and silly; the boy shepherd (Miguel Angel Lozano) is boisterous and rubber-jointed, given to pratfalls, and the girl shepherd (Diana Patrticia Guizado) adores her sweet but mostly invisible sheep. The Luzbels dispatch apprentice devil Pingo (Marianna Morón García) to confound the shepherd family as it sets out to follow the star. And the angel Gabriel isn't far away: stretching out his wide golden fluttering wings, Previstero Aguirre regularly comes tip-toeing out sideways far upstage, evidently expecting more recognition and appreciation than he's getting from this miscellaneous crew. Lori Navarrete and César Díaz as Mary and Joseph process from time to time across the ensuing scenes, José ever smiling and attendant to his invisible donkey and María concerned and perhaps a touch frightened.
Director Ramón evokes a lively circus-style performance from his clowns, rich in gesture and pantomime. They periodically collapse into a sleepy inattentive heap, much to the frustration of Pingo as he tries to tempt them and to send them astray. Those clueless clowns frustrate their worried nemesis Pingo, who's doing everything to carry out instructions from the senior devils to keep these Bozos out of Bethlehem. In terms of the morality play, for a time Pingo, played by an attractive young woman, becomes the focus of our attention -- might it occur to that minor devil, already condemned to Hell, that there's an opportunity here for escape and redemption? Authors Lozano and Farrell didn't write it that way, so Pingo is left no doubt to be kicked around for eternity by those smirking rotten Luzbels.
The Teatro Vivo production runs just over an hour and it's a fun event. As is usual with Teatro Vivo, Nuestra Pastorela is accessible to monolingual English or Spanish speakers as well as to the bilingual, for action is self-evident and both languages are used in the dialogue.
December 01 - December 18, 2016
600 River Street
Austin, TX, 78701
December 1-18, 2016
Showtimes: Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 pm, Sundays at 2 pm
Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center, 600 River St, Austin, TX 78701
Tickets $15 general admission, $20 reserved, plus handling, via
Thursdays and Sundays are pay-what-you-wish at the theatre.