Barefoot in the manger

The strained relationship between theater and the Christian church didn't begin when Terrence McNally held a press conference to announce he was painting a lavender Jesus in Corpus Christi. Way back in seventh-century Europe, church elders declared a culture war against the cross-dressing, bawdy humor, and symbolic wine-pouring that honored the god Dionysus by harassing and in some cases outright persecuting itinerant performers and the village audiences they entertained. But, as is often the case, human nature refused to conform through intimidation: There is some profound, perhaps innate need for individuals to gather and witness the comedic and tragic exigencies of their lives, enacted by someone who's compelled to provide it or explode trying.

The church, finally, threw up its gilded hands and decided all those sinner-be-damned sermons weren't doing the trick. So they co-opted theater just like they co-opted myriad other pagan rites to create holiday celebrations that, even now, Christians attend for reasons that often have very little to do with Christ. Just as medieval English church altars were often built around gigantic stone penises because religious leaders were too respectful of history or too concerned with angry peasant backlash to take them down, so we celebrate the birth of Christ by bedecking a tree around the time of the winter harvest (many historians believe Jesus was, in fact, born in September). Likewise, we commemorate his death and resurrection each year by counting the winter and spring moon cycles to determine Easter (tempting though it is, be merciful this holiday season and don't give a Southern Baptist an aneurysm by reminding them of these unpleasant historical truths).

And, of course, we have Christian plays, or at least, live re-enactments of key Biblical events--a fusion of noble faith and once-orgiastic ritual that nicely sums up the duality of the Western mind. Every year in America, there are countless (and often bloodless) revivals of the passion play. Fort Worth's Stage West, however, has decided to bring us a little closer to our pagan roots with The Christmas Mysteries, a stage re-creation of Bible stories from Lucifer's getting groomed and then booted out of heaven to the birth of the Big Nazarene. Actor-translator-adapter Nicolas Sandys, a longtime Stage West collaborator and performer at Shakespeare in the Park's summer shows, was born and raised in York, England. His childhood holidays often included the experience of the so-called "mystery plays"--rustic, working-class performances of Bible tales with broad comedy and moments of horror. They survive in Great Britain from the days of the medieval church, when all the craftsmen of a particular discipline--say, blacksmithing or woodworking--would unite to perform one story as part of a longer festival.

Sandys brings his rich background to Stage West's The Christmas Mysteries, which follows the mandate of a literary lion who once bellowed with ironic amusement: "Thou shalt not enjoy the Bible for its prose alone," meaning the most blasphemous thing you could do is toss out your guilts, inhibitions, and feelings of religious obligation and just attack the Old and New Testaments for the kind of page-turning pleasure provided by Stephen King. Agnostics, atheists, and non-Christians can rest assured that adapter Sandys and director Jim Covault have carefully stripped these stories of any evangelical coating and encourage you to take from them what you wish: Treat them as stories about the creation of the world and its savior, or as sad, funny, disturbing, instructive parables on human nature and the need for something greater that transcend denominational barriers.

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This world premiere of The Christmas Mysteries is a collaboration between Stage West and the theater department of Texas Wesleyan University, which means there are a lot of fresh young collegiate faces bobbing in-the-round. A handful of Stage West stalwarts--including founder Jerry Russell, Erin McGrann, and Gary Taggart--mix in with the upstarts. This is theater at its most elemental--few considerations to age, race, or even gender have been taken up in casting roles. It's also what you might call "Casual Day" at the theater--the actors are mostly in jeans, sneakers or loafers, tucked and untucked shirts. There are props, but no sets. There is no attempt to smooth out a few strong Texas accents, a delightful little spice in this theatrical stew. And the actors mingle with the audience during intermission. There are occasional interactions during the course of the play: I was once asked to dance by Erin McGrann, an invitation I respectfully declined (hint to actors: the person who's seated late in the second row and frantically scribbling notes on his program is probably a critic; or, to put a fine point on it, it's probably me). If you're the kind who attended Godspell or Jesus Christ Superstar two decades ago and were shocked by the long-haired, barefooted hippie invocations of Christian fable, then you may find Stage West's The Christmas Mysteries just slightly less informal.  

I attended the first preview available to critics, and there were a few glitches. The stories are framed by traditional Anglo group dances that involve some fairly elaborate choreography from Suzi McLaughlin. The pairing and re-pairing, the paganistic swoops and swirls, were accomplished smoothly (a dance with swords that culminates in the creation of a multi-bladed Star of David was particularly impressive), but it wasn't a joyous affair for many of the actors--you could sense their concentration. The invasion of Herod's soldiers into the village looking for this new infant king was clunky: Actors marched on stage abruptly with riot-gear helmets, clubs, and police shields, and seized bundles from the women. Understanding that this is intended to be an anachronistic, rough-hewn production, this horrific event still lacked the gravity that there was in, say, the always confounding story of Abraham (Jerry Russell) and Isaac (James Gilbert). Listening to Gilbert acquiesce with terror, lying in a circle of stones and begging to be killed quickly with his face draped in a handkerchief, brushed me with sorrow and horror. Other highlights included Gary Taggart as a hilariously befuddled Noah and a scarily epicene Herod, bearded face done up in harlot's makeup, who sped around on a platform with hand-held spotlights flickering over his face.

Although Stage West did open this Saturday performance to critics, it was still a preview. I'm suspecting--given the high standards that this Fort Worth troupe seems to hold for its shows, not to mention the infusion of youthful energy and ability that distinguishes this one--that the opening weekend will be tighter. Still, it's not as though I didn't enjoy the hell out of the performance that I saw.

Which brings me to another point. There was a marked difference in dress between performers and audience--the latter were the ones mostly dudded up. Many seemed reluctant to relax and clap out the rhythms along with the actors. This is the kind of show that will improve significantly with audience enthusiasm. Assuming, of course, that the actors fairly earn this response from you, don't be afraid to demonstrate your appreciation. If I hadn't been at the theater that night in a professional capacity, I might have even danced with Erin McGrann.

The Christmas Mysteries runs through December 27. Call (817) STG-WEST.

Kay Olsen could be considered the small Dallas theater company's best friend. Her daytimer lists about 25 different troupes for whom she volunteers as either usher or box-office attendant or concessionaire or pretty much anything she is asked to do. She is most definitely a friend to a theater critic or anyone else who wants to keep a bead on the best and the worst of who's doing what. She sees more theater than any one critic in the city; therefore, a short conversation with Kay makes you an instant authority on the local scene.

"I don't volunteer for the good of the theater community," Olsen says bluntly. "I do it for the good of Kay. These companies let you into the show if you volunteer. I'll usually volunteer once for each production. Whatever I don't get into for free, I catch on the pay-what-you-can nights."

Olson, a Buddha-shaped mother of grown kids who returned to her family in Dallas after touring with her Naval officer ex-husband, confirms that a light theater week is four plays; a heavy schedule can contain up to eight, including shows in Fort Worth and the surrounding cities. In addition to holding a full-time weekday job, she volunteers so regularly for Dallas Theater Center, Theatre Three, Kitchen Dog, Undermain, Teatro Dallas, Hip Pocket, Lyric Stage, Dallas Children's Theater, Stage West, Soul Rep, Casa Manana, Cara Mia, and Our Endeavors, she is sometimes called up by the companies, who understand that they're getting two for one: a responsible arts volunteer and a woman who'll watch their shows with a sense of the company's history and a hunger for the live experience.

"I know it's unusual," Olson says, searching her mind for an explanation of why, for the last eight years, she has devoted so many hours out of her week to seeing plays. "Maybe I'm a frustrated actress. I've always attended theater no matter where I've lived, but I've never been involved in it to the extent I have been in Dallas. After a while, you just become involved in this little community. People recognize your name. You call them up, and they say, 'Oh, yeah, come on over.'"

She is also a dues-paying member of the Society for Theatrical Artists' Guidance and Enhancement (STAGE)--pretty unusual for a non-theater artist. Much as she loves theater, Kay refuses to be drawn in as the ideal spokeswoman for the live experience: she goes to several movies a week too, when she gets off early enough. The bottom line is, "I just like to be entertained. But movies and plays are like apples and oranges. Movies are wonderful, but often you just sit there like a couch potato. Plays, for me, are an obsession or an addiction, but a fine one. I think I'm like a leech. I love feeding off that energy, that feeling of being involved directly with what the actors are doing. And the closer you sit, the more involved you are.  

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