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La Pastorela: A Christmas Legend brought to life by El Teatro Campesino

December 1, 2015

The Mission San Juan Bautista is stage and auditorium for the marvelous productions of the company Teartro de los Camposinos at the end of every year. There are two productions alternating annually: even numbered years feature La Virgen Del Tepeyac, and odd numbered years the current run of La Pastorela, starting the day after Thanksgiving and closing the weekend before Christmas. The program notes tell it simply: “These Christmas plays are a labor of love, involving the young and the old, veterans and newcomers, professional actors and nonprofessionals, in a gesture of spirt, tradition and faith by and for our community.” And, I might add, to be shared freely with the rest of us.

The wonder and charm of these productions is beyond description, but I’ll try. If you like forcefully dramatic singing from an intimate, in-the-round stage, if your eye delights in dance and color and costume, if you like your drama mixed with humor or the other way around, all presented in a historic building that has hosted miracles for two hundred years, you have come to the right place.

2015 marks the 50th year of the company, which arose originally in the fields of Delano as an ad hoc organization of the striking farmworkers during Cesar Chavez’ 1965 strike in Delano CA. They kept together, moved to San Juan Bautista, and by 1971 were staging annual performances of La Virgen in the mission.

The story of la pastorela is centuries old. This version has its origin San Luis Potosi, and was added to the repertoire in 1976, alternating annually with La Virgen. It tells the story of the shepherds (los pastoreles) witnessing the birth of Christ, but there is much more to this story than you might have thought. Luzbel (that is, Lucifer played by Alfredo Avila), anticipating the loss of his kingdom to the Messiah, appears in a vision and sends Satanas (Satan, played by Sedrick Cabrera) and all his cohorts—the seven deadly sins—to tempt and confuse them. While the hermit (Carlos Cortez) sleeps, they are all turned into sheep, but la pastorela Gila (Emily Morales) will not be tempted.

All this is performed from the raised central stage at the intersection of the mission’s nave and transept, by professional actor/singers supported by a vast chorus of family members young (the youngest of the devils, Greed, couldn’t have been older than seven) and old, drummers and musicians of all sorts, inventive lighting to make the miracles seem that much more miraculous. When Lucifer takes the stage, his power is palpable, but the winged San Miguel (Stephani Canedlaria), in a mighty battle scene between all the devils and all the angels, is that much more powerful. In the end, the devils and Lucifer himself are transformed, and go in turn to kneel before Joseph and Mary and the baby Jesus.

It matters but little that the performance is almost entirely spoken and sung in Spanish. The program includes a comprehensive libretto in English which clearly states the action scene by scene, and all that is really needed is a careful reading before the lights go down. Then you can follow, as I did, the action, dance and drama, taking it all in wide-eyed and transported to another time, another place.

This is a work of art in community, and that community includes excellent lodging in town at La Posada Inn, across the street from the box office. The mission itself is surrounded by open fields reminiscent of its earlier days as an outpost along El Camino Real.

Weekends through December 20, 2015. Performances Thursday-Saturday 8:00, Sundays 4:00 and 7:30
Box Office: 831.623.2444. El Teatro Campesino, 705 Fourth Street, P.O. Box 1240, San Juan Bautista, CA 95045

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