Story: Playwright William Gibson re-imagines the Nativity story from a variety of unusual perspectives. Joseph, e.g., is in love with the much younger Mary, but is logically confused and annoyed when he learns that she is pregnant and even more puzzled by her explanation. And who is this dapperly dressed individual who claims to be an angel sent by God to herald the arrival of the Messiah?
There’s also the murderous King Herod, whose maniacal quest for power extends to killing all male babies in his province to extinguish the so-called savior of the Jewish people under his reign. Three wise men from the Far East appear as they follow the Star of Bethlehem to pay homage, while a number of creatures, including a wise-cracking tree, voice their own opinions of goings-on.
And then there’s Mary’s loutish family, a brood of 17 that seems stuck in the Stone Age, even if Mary is a precocious feminist with little interest in marriage and her own family. This is not your father’s Nativity story.
Highlights: Gibson apparently wrote this 1975, two-act comedy in response to his church’s request for an original Christmas presentation. Stray Dog Theatre, which has presented such amusing fare as The Santaland Diaries and Fully Committed in seasons past, has mounted a production faithful to Gibson’s offbeat approach under the careful guidance of artistic director Gary Bell.
Other Info: I had never heard of Gibson’s goofy holiday show, even though it was written 38 years ago. After seeing Stray Dog’s version, perhaps that’s because it’s really not a very good piece at all. While the first act has a number of amusing moments, by the time the second act labors to its tedious conclusion the novelty of talking animals and sarcastic trees has long since waned.
Furthermore, the depiction of Mary’s family as a collection of Neanderthal slugs is too stupid to appreciate, and the interpretation of Herod is more painful than perceptive. An overly long bit in Act II as the wacko ruler debates how to destroy his Messiah nemesis seems to be Gibson’s ill-fated attempt to match the originality of the character in Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar. He should have listened to the latter’s LP and left well enough alone.
Then there are the Three Wise Men, here portrayed as a trio of slapstick monarchs who don’t appear to be smart enough to figure out that the sun rises in the east, let alone make a perilous journey following a night star.
The Royal Shakespeare Company couldn’t make Gibson’s strained humor work, but the earnest cast of Stray Dog’s production tries mightily. Colleen Backer is drolly amusing as a very modern Mary, who befuddles her senior admirer, Joseph, with her circuitous logic while she yearns for a more rewarding life than that of the women she observes around her.
As Joseph, Stephen Peirick makes eminent sense, questioning how the young woman he loves can be so magically pregnant. He keeps a jealous and jaundiced eye on the young man named Gabriel, who purports to be an angel even though he can’t blow the trumpet and perpetually checks his ‘playbook’ to determine what to say or do next. Joseph Corey Henke, adorned in precious white shorts and colorful bow tie by costumer Alexandra Scibetta Quigley, is a good fit for the nervous neophyte.
John Reidy has the unenviable task of handling the stilted and senseless dialogue muttered by Herod, although he fares better as a silver-tongued ‘devil’ dressed in a modern dark suit, who pops up periodically to lure the children and animals with enticing candy. Alyssa Ward has fun as a tree that wants to be free to cavort rather than rooted to a specific location.
Others in the large cast contributing to Gibson’s dreary tale include Ashley Alcamo, Sarajane Alverson, Grace Clark, Kevin Connelly, Mitch Eagles, Andrew Kuhlman, Olivia Light, Ellie Lore and Jan Niehoff. Musical director Adam Rugo appears as a strumming troubadour, a welcome enhancement to the dialogue drudgery. There also are lovely versions of several traditional yuletide tunes such as Mary Had a Baby, Silent Night and Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, interspersed throughout and sung pleasantly by the cast.
In production notes, Bell says that he and Quigley favored a “biblical hippie” look for the characters, a colorful style that works well for this would-be lampoon. Tyler Duenow adds lighting that complements Bell’s winning set design comprised of a splash of brown paint on the background, a wooden picket fence and a rock offset by planks at the front of the stage, with the glowing Star of Bethlehem above.
Many in the opening-night audience seemed to enjoy Gibson’s contribution to holiday pageantry. Personally, I suspect that he penned this tripe so that he’d never be approached for favors by his church again.
Play: The Butterfingers Angel, Mary & Joseph, Herod the Nut and the Slaughter of 12 Hit Carols in a Pear Tree
Company: Stray Dog Theatre
Venue: Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue
Dates: December 12, 13, 14, 19, 20, 21
Tickets: $18-$20; contact 865-1995 or www.StrayDogTheatre.org
Rating: A 2.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb