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


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.

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