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Heart of the Beast: Not your traditional Nativity story (video)

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.

Chance meeting
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.

Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Mike Hazard on 12/23/2008 - 09:09 pm.

    The video beautifully complements the text.

    This is not your traditional media story.

    Bravo, Mr. Date and MinnPost.

    And it dramatizes the well-publicized financial troubles which the Theater is experiencing.

    Support the Heart of the Beast.

  2. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 12/25/2008 - 07:09 am.

    Thanks for a glimpse of the wild and beautiful pageantry that affirms the sense of neighborhood that still exists still on Lake and Bloomington. It honors that corner and every corner neighborhood which has always been the hallmark of Lake Street be it Bloomington or Chicago Avenue or Lyndale, etc. Corners-on-Lake have been the heart of the human where old legends now become new again…

    It is on Bloomington where some fifty years ago existed a Drugstore (independant one, wish I could remember its name?) with an informal cafe and a grocery attached…that time in the 50’s, 60’s then too had its community spirit from the old men who came on Tuesdays; sat on the high loop of stools at the back of the diner to perform the rituals of friends;to loudly debate politics…or over at the short booths that looked like a mad maze after school were often inhabited by giggling teeners who filled the booths… or the old woman who bought flowers weekly from the small ‘florists shop’ just inside the door of the Drugstore,to give to whom, or maybe for herself; who would ever know?

    A New Nativity:Old legends become new again. Time itself gives or is given a second chance in this most delicate weaving of the religious, cultural and the political; a rebirth indeed that honors everyman and his perseverance to survive whatever gods support us or attempt to destroy us in these times.

    The gods of war and injustice were trampled on this street corner this holy season…even the donkey’s tracks affirm it as the crowds of how many faces did glow in the light of this new hope given as a gift in this video/glimpse. Thanks again.

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