Christmas plays unfold in a formulaic manner: It's almost Christmas, then something could potentially impede or ruin Christmas, and then Christmas happens, cue "Joy to the World." William Gibson's The Butterfingers Angel, Mary & Joseph, Herod the Nut and the Slaughter of 12 Hit Carols in a Pear Tree is a Christmas play, and so the formula peeks through that verbose title. But Gibson tugs at those familiar threads with black humor, keen insights about how men and women think, and the graphic depiction of the nature of evil so that what could be rote instead becomes dazzling and novel. That's a Christmas miracle of a sort.
Gibson's subject is the nativity story, and in his hands — and with Gary F. Bell's sharp and lively direction — it is a tale of hope, albeit one tinged with fear and sacrifice. Bell arranges cast and scenery in tried and true church pageant fashion: The ensemble sits at the back of the stage and watches the story unfold, offering corrective lines and laughing at the frequent mistakes of the Butterfingers Angel (more on him shortly) when they're not playing their roles of sheep and trees and people. It's as if all the world is here to witness the tale and to take part in the great formula once again.
Mary (Colleen M. Backer) is a young woman who refuses to get married and procreate because of her seventeen savage brothers, who recently dropped an infant sibling into the fire and ate it. Backer's Mary sparkles with confidence that only occasionally wavers; hers is the certainty of youth, assured that both she and the world are immutable.
But change is already upon her. The angel has a message from God for Mary, but this celestial being is a fumbling, nervous bungler who muffs his lines and has none of Mary's confidence. The Butterfingers Angel (Joseph Corey Henke) tells Mary the Good News — she's about to be pregnant — and then commits to helping her see the delivery through. Mary's first thought, however, is to find a father for the child, which means giving in to old man Joseph's (Stephen Peirick) frequent advances.
Their courtship is deeply human, in that there is hope and doubt, and confusion and joy before the marriage is arranged. Peirick plays Joseph as a faithful man who prays fervently for a true family before he dies and assumes Mary has only relented because of her pregnancy. As God-fearing as Joseph is, he's also a man; he quivers with jealous anger when he considers that Butterfingers is no angel but instead just a penniless youth who has put Mary in the family way. Mary talks him down from that ledge time and again with the common sense of a true wife, but the issue is always present in Joseph's mind.
Not helping matters is the menacing Man in Grey (John Reidy). Wearing a gray suit and a gold chain and casually sucking on a needle-sharp candy cane, Reidy brings a mob boss' civil savagery to his role as mankind's opponent. He harries the couple as they flee to Bethlehem, watching their departure from the shade of an olive tree.
Yet despite the menacing Man in Grey, Christmas comes. "Joy to the World"? Not quite yet. Herod has slain every child in Bethlehem in order to eliminate this newborn king, and the nativity manger is surrounded by the bodies. Into this vale of sorrow comes a child, and the surviving ensemble sings "O Little Town of Bethlehem" in the darkness. Slowly the dead children rise up and join in, as that simple song promises something more than the horror and sadness that besets the world. Gibson's enough of a showman to keep the Man in Grey visible on the sidelines.
Smiling. Waiting. Held in abeyance until the song ends.
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