The Best Christmas Pageant Ever
This weekend I went to see the other show playing at Seattle Public Theater for the holidays is Barbara Robinson’s family-friendly "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever," directed by Shana Bestock.
I’m developing a real fondness for this tiny theater on Greenlake. To be honest, I went expecting a clever and cheeky send-up of church Christmas pageants everywhere, a la Owen Meany. What I got was a funny but very touching re-telling of the Christmas story with a lot more depth and feeling than I had anticipated. Yes, that Christmas story, so just go into it knowing that it’s about Christmas, not the generic holidays.
Beth (Anna Marie Yanny) narrates for us from her perspective as the young daughter of Grace (Caitlin Frances) who gets called into service at their church when Ms Armstrong (Heather Ward) who is always in charge of the Christmas pageant breaks her leg and reluctantly hands over the reins. Yanny gives us a perfect example of pre-teen coltish gawkiness in the role, but with clean oratory skills.
The Christmas pageant is the same every year, with the same Mary, the same Joseph, the same costumes and the same bored parents, including Bob (Brandon Felker), Grace’s husband and father to Beth and her brother Charlie (Gabe Airth). Bob has plans to sit home in his bathrobe the night of the pageant, graciously giving up his seat to someone else who needs it. But that changes when his wife is forced to take over the planning.
Something else changes as well. Beth, Charlie and the other kids at their Sunday school particularly appreciate one thing about it: the Herdman kids aren’t there. The Herdman kids consist of six children who run wild through the school and town and therefore through the lives of all the other children whom they terrorize. Their parents don’t seem to exist and they’re always in trouble with social services.
Charlie makes the mistake of letting the Herdmans know about the pageant and all six of them show up the following Sunday to participate in wild and colorful disarray, knowing nothing about the story, brutishly overwhelming to everyone around them but hungry for a message of hope.
One of the Herdmans, Imogene (Sofia Truzzi), who bullies the regular Mary into stepping down from the role in favor of her, asks what the plays about. "It’s about Jesus," says Grace. "God, everything here is!" says Imogene, rolling her eyes.
Gladys Herdman (Aliza Cosgrove) spices up the part of the Angel by appearing "out of the black night with horrible vengeance" waving her star around and shouting, "Shazam!" Cosgrove makes a perfect dirty-faced angel, with a halo of frizzy blonde hair and heaps of energy.
When Beth complains that the Herdmans playing Mary and Joseph (Ralph Herdman played with hulking fierceness by Spencer Bradley) look like refugees, Bob answers, "Well, that’s what they were, in a way."
There are the usual shepherds in bathrobes and angels in bed sheets, including one little angel whose parents don’t have any white sheets so she shows up in polka dots. And there’s one marvelous sheep. But with the addition of the Herdmans who are experiencing the power of the story for the very first time, the simple costumes and the childish missteps dissolve into a moving vignette.
Early on Grace vows to make this the best pageant ever, despite the Herdmans and the resistance to them from everyone in the church. Both for the characters in the play and for the audience it becomes exactly that because of the real world problems brought in by this troublesome family. I doubt there was a dry eye in the house when the cast burst into "Joy to the World."
If you want to revisit the meaning of Christmas, I’d recommend this marvelous little show.
"The Best Christmas Pageant Ever" runs through Dec. 24 at Seattle Public Theater, 7312 W. Greenlake Dr. N. in Seattle. For info or tickets, call 206-524-1300 or visit online at www.seattlepublictheater.org.