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'La Pastorela' celebrates 20th anniversary Phillip Brents | Fri, Dec 10 2010 03:21 PM

San Diego’s longest-running professional theater production is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, but Lucifer is not smiling. The Prince of Darkness has other things in mind.

 “La Pastorela de Libertad,” the newest in Teatro Mascara Magica’s award-winning series of Mexican-inspired Christmas musicals, once again features the timeless battle between Lucifer’s forces of evil and Michael the Archangel’s champions of goodness set in today’s world of chaos and hope. Its creators promise the funniest and most poignant pastorela yet. 

 “We want this year’s production to be a special celebration of  La Pastorela’s heritage and a celebration of the inherent goodness of mankind,” said playwright Max Branscomb. “Most of all, we want to celebrate our wonderful multicultural community here in our great home in the borderlands. That’s what ‘La Pastorela’ is all about.”

 “La Pastorela de Libertad” is a contemporary twist on the traditional story of the shepherds’ journey to Bethlehem to witness the first Christmas. Called to action by Archangels Michael and Gabriel, the shepherds face temptation and danger from evil Lucifer and his nasty minions. The bilingual script is primarily in English with Christmas carols sung in Spanish.

Written by Max Branscomb and directed by William Virchis, “La Pastorela de Libertad” runs Dec. 9-12 and 16-18 at 7:30 p.m., and 2 p.m. Dec. 11, 12, 18 and 19 at the Lyceum Theater in Horton Plaza. Tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for students, military and groups, and $7 for children under 12 or groups of 10 or more.  For reservations call (619) 544-1000. 

Cast members include some of San Diego’s most popular actors. Joey Molina is Lucifer, the Prince of Darkness. Tim Evans is Soledad the wily hermit. Dave Rivas and Rhys Green are the devils Satan and Moloch. Television star Willie Green plays Michael the Archangel. Miss California finalist Marina Inserra plays Irasema Paz, the Southwestern College journalism student whose new husband is deported.

The pastorela is a folk art form that dates back to the beginning of Christianity.   During the second century early Christians in hiding acted out the Christmas story to hand it down in the oral tradition. It survived as an underground movement until Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in the fourth century.

The Spaniards brought it to Mexico in the 1540s and it has become that country’s most popular form of theater. More than 2,500 unique versions of the story are produced south of the border. Almost every city, town and village in Mexico has its own version of the pastorela. 

A pastorela is the tale of the shepherd’s journey to Bethlehem to witness the first Christmas. It is the B-plot of the nativity, a journey fraught with temptations, distractions and mortal peril as the devils try to prevent the shepherds from reaching their destination. It is a traditional morality play full of choices and introspection, but presented with levity, music, beautiful costumes and poetic dialogue. Pastorelas are written entirely in verse, like a Yuletide Dr. Seuss story.

TMM and the Old Globe Theater developed and produced the first English language pastorela in San Diego in 1991 at the Globe. The play appeals to English and Spanish speakers alike. The text is in English and the Christmas songs are in Spanish. Raul Moncada of the Globe wrote the first script and mentored Branscomb, who has written the show for 18 years. Virchis has directed 19 of the 20 productions.

Branscomb’s devils and angels are masters of disguise who appear throughout the shepherd’s journey as historic and contemporary characters. His pastorelas have inspired theater companies throughout the Southwestern United States to produce their own.  Branscomb has written more than 40 pastorelas for companies in Tucson, Los Angeles, San Jose, Bakersfield, Phoenix, Cincinnati, Nogales, Mexico and other cities on both sides of the border. 

Virchis is professor emeritus of theater at Southwestern College and one of America’s leading Latino stage directors. He has directed productions of "Jesus Christ Superstar," "Zoot Suit" and "Let the Eagle Fly," as well as the national touring production of "Selena Forever." Old Globe founder Craig Noel called Virchis "the county’s boldest and most daring director."

Besides his work with Teatro Mascara Magica, Branscomb is the founder and artistic director of the Bonitafest Melodrama, San Diego County’s longest-running theater production. It celebrated its 33rd season in 2010. Branscomb is San Diego County's most commissioned playwright. He has authored more than 80 produced plays and musicals for more than 20 theater companies across the nation. Branscomb is a professor of journalism at Southwestern College and adviser of "The Sun," America’s No. 1-ranked community college newspaper.

Virchis and Branscomb first teamed up in 1992 to update and revise the Lerner-Lowe musical "Paint Your Wagon" at Starlite Musical Theatre. Virchis asked Branscomb to rewrite the cliched Latino character Julio from a shuffling Mexican knockabout to a proud indigenous hero. The revision played to sold-old audiences at Starlite and was named best play of the Season by San Diego’s theatre critics. They also worked together as playwright and director of DiverCity Works Theatre and the annual Martin Luther King Breakfast for the National Conference of Community and Justice, America's oldest civil rights organization.

Teatro Mascara Magica was founded in 1989 to increase the production of multicultural theatre and to provide professional theatrical opportunities to underrepresented segments of the population. Another mission of the Teatro is to subsidize ticket prices to make live theatre affordable to families and the less affluent.  "La Pastorela" has been honored by the National Endowment for the Arts as well as numerous human rights organizations.  Teatro Mascara Magica was a recipient of the 2004 San Diego County Multicultural Heritage Award for its leadership in multicultural theater.

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