Go, baby Jesus, it’s your birthday
For years, theater lovers in the Bay Area have driven south to rural San Juan Bautista to enjoy El Teatro Campesino’s production of La Pastorela. It’s a nativity play, rooted in medieval tradition, but with a decidedly Mexican/Californian twist. There’s always a bit of modern pop culture worked into the epic battle between angels and devils, and some unmistakable social/political commentary rising from the story of Joseph and Mary and the baby Jesus, who was born in a stable because good citizens of Bethlehem wouldn’t make room at the inn.
Now the Sacramento Theatre Company has begun what we hope will become a local La Pastorela tradition. This initial production is modestly (but delightfully) mounted by the STC2-Young Professionals Conservatory, with a cast of two dozen performers, ages 5 to 19.
While the basic framework of the story doesn’t change year to year, La Pastorela has flexibility; indeed, the director is expected make adaptations and introduce new material. In this case, STC asked Edgar “Zancudo” Sanchez (a former member of El Teatro Campesino) to take the helm. And Sanchez sprinkles in gentle humor and folksy insights. These angels and devils feud like young brothers and sisters, to the distress of Padre Dios. There are also shepherds reminiscent of characters out of Disney: There’s one who’s always sleepy, another who can’t stop eating … you get the idea.
And since the shepherds are on a journey, there’s plenty of movement and mariachi-derived music, starting with a processional and continuing with dance scenes, battle scenes (a cosmic conflict between good and evil), and ultimately the stable in Bethlehem, where the shepherds kneel at the manger.
The frequently funny, sometimes touching show often overflows STC’s small Pollock Stage. Some companies stage La Pastorela in an old Catholic church (hint, hint). And the lead parts—like the old hermit—might be given to veteran character actors, retaining the young performers in the numerous supporting roles (which is pretty much what El Teatro Campesino does).