From the moment Maria (Lizette Gomez Vega) is summoned by angels while in line at Torilleria La Perla in the food court of El Mercado Central, it’s obvious this is not going to be a traditional telling of the Nativity story.
Director Sandy Spieler uses several locations near the In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre (HOBT), as well as the surrounding streets, to stage “La Natividad,” based on the traditional Latin American Christmas story called La Posada (inn or shelter).
Spieler says this production is an excellent example of HOBT’s artistic vision and mission — to bring performers, audience and neighbors together for a performance and in the end, to share food together and celebrate. There are no sets, other than a small puppet theater at one of the four stops. The audience moves with the performers through the streets to four indoor venues. Each location is used “as is” — nothing changed or disturbed. The final scene, at St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, is followed by eating and festivities.
The play is loosely set in modern times, weaving back and forth in a dreamlike way between actors (sometimes wearing large masks and sometime not) small puppets, large puppets and a host of strange characters. It matches modern day politics and attitudes with those of the time of Jesus. References to current times come as humorous, moving and sometimes startling surprises sprinkled throughout the evening.
The story begins in El Mercado Central, as merchants continue to conduct business with actual customers while Maria finds out she’s pregnant and she and Jose begin their journey to Bethlehem. Everyone treks across Lake Street to a storefront where Jose (in small puppet form) worries about how he will support his family and ruminates about the plight of immigrant workers.
In the Avalon Theater, HOBT’s home, we meet King Herod (Ben Kreilkamp), who sets off on an anti-undocumented immigrant tirade that would even make CNN’s Lou Dobbs cringe. We also meet the Walker Community Church Choir — angels who alert everyone to the coming event and musically guide us along the rest of the journey.
The procession then heads up 15th Avenue, following Jose and Maria as they look for a place to stay. We know the rest of the story, but by this time we also know that there will be twists and turns along the way.
Spieler and St. Paul’s ministry team of Pastors Luisa and Patrick Cabell Hansel created the project three years ago after a chance meeting in a nearby Target parking lot. Spieler had been leading various Christmas productions at Walker Community Church, most notably “The Hunt”. As they talked, the three realized they wanted to do this type of production together in the neighborhood of the church.
Spieler hopes this production’s direct connection to the Latino community can be beneficial to all. The management of El Mercado Central has been very supportive, even though the play can be a temporary disruption to business. “I hope that people in the audience who are new to the neighborhood will come back and visit the shops and eat some of the wonderful food at the Mercado”, she says.
“La Natividad” finished a seven-performance run Sunday. The audience size is limited because of the small size of some of the performance spaces. All shows this year were sold out in advance.
HOBT recently announced that it is temporarily closing its doors for financial reasons. Spieler says it’s a short layoff and thinks that the long-term picture is still bright for the theater company.