Posts Tagged ‘Luis Valdez’

What? “La Pastorela” has moved from the San Juan Bautista Mission? Relax. It’s terrific.

Wednesday, December 25th, 2019
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Perhaps the most exciting show in the Bay Area  this season took place not in the famed City, but about 60 miles south of it, in the remote little burg of San Juan Bautista. I say that not because I have been a regular aficionado of the local theater scene this busy year, but because this year’s La Pastorela was one of the best shows I’ve seen ever.

I had my misgivings. I had been invited to make the trek to the annual Christmas show by a stepson and his wife, with their 10-year-old in tow. The effort is the seasonal offering of the town’s El Teatro Campesino, founded by the legendary Luís Valdez and born in the grape boycotts and agitprop of the 1960s.

The Christmas show (which alternates with La Virgen del Tepeyac) has graced the great San Juan Bautista mission, founded in 1797 (and best known as the setting of Hitchcock’s Vertigo) … until now.

As Valdez explains, “We began performing La Pastorela in the streets of San Juan Bautista in 1977. The cold winter nights had always put our audience and actors through an ordeal, but the steady rain of December 1980 finally washed us out completely.” Miraculously, it seemed to them, the Old Basilica welcomed them, allowing the shepherds to come inside. After nearly half a century, that arrangement came to an end.

I looked at the website a week ago and realized there had been a switcheroo: as of this year, the show will be performed in a nearby playhouse on Fourth Street. I briefly wondered if we could get a refund. After all, the big draw was seeing a centuries-old play in the centuries-old mission, with its heavy dark-wood pews, stucco walls, and  saints-in-niches. I had my doubts: the playhouse is less than half the size, a theater in the round (or rather polygon) with effects amplified by several screens.

Luís Valdez: the father of Chicano theater

I read in the program that, with this move, El Teatro Campesino was returning to the cradle that gave them birth: a humble packing-shed playhouse, “with all the creativity, vibrancy and cariño that our 54 year old El Teatro Campesino family can provide,” according to Valdez, in “a gesture of spirit, tradition, and faith by and for our community.”

Briefly, the story of La Pastorela: a group of pilgrims are en route to visit the Baby Jesus at Belém (a.k.a. Bethlehem), but are diverted and rerouted by a group of devils, eventually finding themselves caught in a  titanic battle between good and evil, Lucifer and San Miguel.

The drama has been entirely reimagined and restaged for its new setting, under the imaginative direction of Kinan Valdez. The play packs a bigger punch in the smaller space. The singing, dancing, and fighting almost bursts through the walls. San Miguel and his angels – a spray of white feathers for wings on their shoulders to show their celestial affiliation – were outfitted in military uniforms and Che Guevara style berets to fight for the forces of heaven. At the ultimate match-up they wrestle down Lucifer with … doves. That’s right, white feather doves like the kind you see on Christmas trees, only about the size of an arm.

Lucifer and sidekick (Photo: Robert Eliason)

San Miguel has usually been cast as a woman (Linda Ronstadt for the Masterpiece Theater production years ago; Primavera Cabibi for this one). But two of roles have had sex changes: the role of Bartolo has become Bartola (Sylvia Gonzalez), the mother rather than the father of the high-spirited and accomplished Gila (Xochitl Rios-Ellis). However, the most daring change was that Lucifer has become Luzbel – Jessica Osegueda as the demonic generalissimo gives a bravura performance that rocked the theater and stole the show.

Something magical began to happen early in the performance: at the appearance of the devils,  one small child began wailing and had to be removed. More events followed. I tried to exercise charity as the tall mother in front of me was constantly leaning over to whisper to her daughter; each hissing remark blocked the stage as effectively as a curtain fall. Then I looked around, and realized that mothers throughout the theater were whispering to children – that, in fact, there was a steady undertow of whispering. The children were whispering because they were engaged, they wanted answers, the wanted to know more about what they were seeing. (The girl with our small party even wanted to join the child actors who were the mini-devils.)

This is what theater is supposed to do but so rarely does, especially for kids who haven’t been much exposed to it. Open worlds. Shift points of view. Expand possibilities. Change lives. Invite engagement. Enchant. And for the children in the theater that day, it hooks them into theater, stories, myths, melodies, Latino culture – impressing on them the foundations of our civilization. If future shows are as good, I would suggest that whole truckfuls of children be carted to future Pastorelas. This one ended far too soon. We attended the very last sold-out performance on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

Medieval plays in modern times: Dickens, Dante, and La Pastorela

Friday, December 20th, 2013
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El Teatro Campesino’s “La Pastorela” (Photo: Lora Schraft/Morgan Hill Times)

Once a year our family, or various subsets of it, makes the trek to the town of San Juan Bautista to see El Teatro Campesino’s annual Christmas play. This year it was La Pastorela. Here’s the cool part:  it’s part of an ancient tradition of pastorelas, or shepherds’ plays, introduced into Mexico by Spanish monks centuries ago.  The program notes described its relationship vis-à-vis the medieval morality plays: “there are vague similarities betwen the Mexican and old English traditions, the Wakefield master’s version is more decidedly irreverant.”

The ghost of Christmas forever.

The first production took place in 1966, when the company, which was born in Cesar Chavez‘s historic grape strike, improvised before a live audience in a Christmas Eve performance with farm-workers as performers. Then, in 1976, after artistic director Luis Valedez relocated the group to the mission town south of San Jose, the company received an old dog-eared typed manuscript of La Pastorela from the mother of one of the young performers. Longina Montoya offered the company the script she had performed as a girl in her hometown of San Luis Potosi, Mexico, and she sang all the songs a cappella into a portable tape recorder. A tradition was reborn (see photos here). So now in Silicon Valley we have an opportunity to taste the medieval, via these old morality plays, often bawdy and funny, where good meets evil and good inevitably triumphs. Could there be more?  Yes!

I’ve never seen anyone link Dante and Charles Dickens  before, but over at the blog “Through a Glass Brightly,” blogger Kathryn (she doesn’t seem to have a last name)  finds a few parallels. Did Dickens, in fact, write a medieval morality play?  And was he inspired by Dante?  The evidence is intriguing.  Dickens may have written A Christmas Carol while he was touring Italy, where the Florentine poet is inescapable. She pulls together a few parallels:

First of all, both main characters begin in a dark wood—vividly illustrated as such in the Comedy and similarly rendered in chimney tops, alleyways, and dense fog in the Carol. The Pilgrim and the Miser have lost their way. Hence, they are taken on a mystical journey for the sake of their reclamation: Dante through Hell, Purgatory, & Heaven; Scrooge through the Past, Present, and Future. The three beasts that Dante meets before his journey begins (leopard, lion, and wolf) function similarly to the omens that Scrooge encounters on Christmas Eve: the hearse, the transformed door-knocker, the ringing bell. And when Dante first meets Virgil, the lines run,

dickensAnd when I saw him standing in this wasteland, “Have pity on my soul,” I cried to him, “whichever you are, shade or living man!” “No longer living man, though once I was,” […]

Virgil explains to Dante:

“But you must journey down another road,” he answered, when he saw me lost in tears, “if ever you hope to leave this wilderness; […]”

Likewise (though in the third person), Marley’s visit to Scrooge goes,

“How now!” said Scrooge, caustic and cold as ever. “What do you want with me?” “Much!” — Marley’s voice, no doubt about it. “Who are you?” “Ask me who I was.” “Who were you then?”  said Scrooge, raising his voice.  “You’re particular, for a shade.”

Her conclusion finds inevitable differences in the spirit of medieval Italy and the spirit of Victorian England: “The Comedy is headed for brightness, aiming at ecstasy—much like the natural world does as it blossoms into spring at Easter. But the Carol turns in from the cold, burrows into warm hearth and good wine and loud laughter.”  Read the rest here. Meanwhile, the BBC offers another possibility for the origins of A Christmas Carol in one of Dickens’s least-read books, The Uncommercial Traveller:

marley“There was a man who, though not more than thirty, had seen the world in divers irreconcilable capacities – had been an officer in a South American regiment among other odd things – but had not achieved much in any way of life, and was in debt, and in hiding. He occupied chambers of the dreariest nature in Lyons Inn; his name, however, was not up on the door, or door-post, but in lieu of it stood the name of a friend who had died in the chambers, and had given him the furniture. The story arose out of the furniture… “

The story Dickens goes on to tell recounts how the failed adventurer finds a heap of old furniture in the cellar of his lodgings. Finding his rooms bare and cheerless, he borrows a writing-table, then a bookcase, then a couch and a rug, and soon has all of the furniture in his chambers. Some years later there is a knock on his door. A tall, red-nosed shabby-genteel man in a threadbare black coat enters the room and, pointing to each item of furniture, mutters: “Mine”.

Read the rest here.

christmas-carolPostscript:  And here’s yet another unusual take on A Christmas Carol, by the remarkable Morgan Meis, writing in The Smart Set a few years back.  He contends “A Christmas Carol isn’t great because it’s a great story. In fact, A Christmas Carol is a flimsy story. The characters are mostly clichés.” He argues for a different assessment of its greatness: “Later in the story, at the appearance of the first spirit, Dickens describes what happens as the ghost approaches Scrooge in his bed. ‘The curtains of his bed were drawn aside; and Scrooge, starting up into a half-recumbent attitude, found himself face to face with the unearthly visitor who drew them: as close to it as I am now to you, and I am standing in the spirit at your elbow.’ The remarkable thing here is not so much that a ghost appeared to Scrooge but that Dickens himself is a ghost appearing to us. Dickens’ authorial voice does come directly into our heads at that moment. In this, the joy of writing becomes the very substance and content of the story. Almost no writer gets away with this kind of playfulness very often. Dickens gets away with it all the time. And A Christmas Carol is utterly charmless without that extra element, without Dickens constantly nipping at the heels of his own story. It makes me think that we ought to reconsider Dickens, to see him more in the light of a Lawrence Sterne than in the light of the straight shooters of 19th-century novel writing.” Read the whole thing here.