Daystar: a Medieval Christmas Play/The Butterfingers Angel, Mary & Joseph, Herod the Nut & the Slaughter of 12 Hit Carols in a Pear Tree | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Daystar: a Medieval Christmas Play/The Butterfingers Angel, Mary & Joseph, Herod the Nut & the Slaughter of 12 Hit Carols in a Pear Tree 

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Bailiwick Repertory with Coyote Company

at Bailiwick Repertory


Talisman Theatre

As incredible as it may seem at this time of year, there are many American citizens who do not know the story of Christmas. Oh, we see the decorations, hear the hymns and all that, but the actual myth of Jesus's birth is so assumed to be a cultural given that rarely does anyone feel the need to make more than passing reference to it. One may, of course, get the basic points from the Bible, but that source will leave a whole trove of ancillary folklore unaccounted for. This year, however, two theater companies propose to tell the Christmas story in its entirety--one of them is Bailiwick Repertory, in conjunction with Coyote Company, doing Walter Miller's Daystar: A Medieval Christmas Play.

The medieval passion play was designed as religious instruction for a largely illiterate population. Attention spans of such audiences being little longer than those of today's, the depictions of the sacred texts would often be intercut with low comedy scenes, songs, and dances, or spectacularly contrived special effects.

Daystar draws extensively from The Second Shepherd's Play (performed circa 1450) and other works of the same period to produce a definitive recounting of the angel Gabriel's announcement, Mary's apprehension, Joseph's incredulity, the untimely trip to Bethlehem and the shortage of lodging, the international delegation of royalty, Herod's homicidal pique, and the hairbreadth escape into Egypt--as well as the subsequent hearsay regarding the cherry tree that bowed to Mary and the midwife crippled for doubting the virginity of the young mother. Alongside all this solemnity is a slapstick subplot involving three shepherds, a thieving Scotsman and his slatternly wife, and a purloined sheep disguised as a baby. Dances there are none, but Philip Gehring and a four-piece orchestra provide plenty of songs and incidental music combining contemporary and period composition forms (and cribbing one, but only one, theme from Gian Carlo Menotti).

The result is a simple, spare, and straightforward narrative--formal without being pompous, reverent without being dogmatic, and ingenuously serious in its secular as well as its sacred moments. Under the direction of Kristin Gehring, the eight members of the acting ensemble play anywhere from two to five roles apiece, with particularly fine work displayed by Carey MacKinnon's gaminesque Gabriel, Ken Baker's petulant Herod, and the team of Baker, Deanna Shoemaker, and Robert Wendell Neal as the shepherds who outwit the sly Mak, played with fresh- faced innocence by Steven J. Anderson. David L. Clark's costumes blend modern and period elements to create a motif at once exotic and familiar, and Walter Miller's demon masks and puppets are appropriately grisly.

The plays of the 15th century reflect a society in which religion was a comfortable part of daily existence. That's no longer true in our culture. Daystar serves quite well not only as reaffirmation for believers, but as an introduction to Christian mythology for those who may wonder precisely what all the annual late-December brouhaha is really all about.

William Gibson wrote The Butterfingers Angel, Mary & Joseph, Herod the Nut & the Slaughter of 12 Hit Carols in a Pear Tree as a romp for his local church pageant, but somehow it wound up in the Dramatists Play Service catalog where unsuspecting theater companies looking for anything a little different for the holidays could find it. A parochial pastiche of several vaguely familiar Christmas stories, this script emerges as nearly nothing to anybody.

Many of the ideas have a certain potential: Gabriel as a klutzy apprentice angel facing an imminent layoff if he screws up one more time; Mary as a feminist yenta; Joseph as an existential wimp ("Every night, I pray to God to make me perfect," he laments. "And, in His infinite wisdom, every morning I wake up a putz!"); and an ecumenical wedding ceremony where the bride and groom cross themselves before the latter smashes a ceremonial glass under his foot. But after the young Gabriel has exhibited sympathy pains during Mary's labor, after the cherry tree has sold out to Satan for a fur coat, after Herod has been depicted as a paranoid, drugged-out rock-and-roller in a scene that goes on far too long, and after several characters have dithered in unfunny accents, any charm The Butterfingers Angel may offer has been irretrievably deep-sixed. The sabotage is compounded by Kerry B. Riffle's apparent direction to play everything even more broadly than written, ad libitum.

The Butterfingers Angel is not a complete disaster, however: Robert A. Mullen, so compelling in last summer's Jugger's Rain (also at Talisman), delivers a surprisingly sympathetic performance as Herod the head case and as the mysterious "Man in Grey" whose voice swells suspiciously during a caroling on the line "To save us all from Satan's power / When we have gone astray." (So effectively does Mullen's presence dominate the action that his final speech triggered a burst of applause from the audience, who erroneously assumed that the play was over.) He is joined by a cast of actors likewise too good for what they are required to do in this production. And a musical score is provided by a gleefully goofy gaggle of musicians whose tape of offbeat holiday carols--including a Tom Waits-style "Away in a Manger" and a heavy-metal "O Christmas Tree"--may be purchased in the lobby after the show.

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