Actors and puppets romp through Open Eye Figure's The Holiday Pageant
Open Eye Figure Theatre takes an ancient form, the English miracle play, and joyfully tosses in the ribald with the sacred in The Holiday Pageant, written, directed and designed by artistic director Michael Sommers. The play preserves the central dignity of the Nativity, but the ensemble takes playful license with the Annunciation and the battle of wits between God and Lucifer over the fate of cloddish mankind. The actors are having such a wonderful time on stage that you'd have to be a clod to resist their high jinks.
Sommers moves Pageant along at an engaging 75-minute clip in 12 vignettes that span mankind's fall in the Garden of Eden all the way to the hope for redemption in the Nativity. In mixing the sacred with the profane, Sommers follows a long tradition. In Medieval England, the clergy mounted the miracle plays on carts in villages to instruct an illiterate populace on religion. But, as a middle class of trade and craftsmen emerged in England, they took over the plays and added earthy elements of burlesque and farce to the sacred stories.
Sommers designs his simple but colorful set to look like a triptych, with a central curtained panel, where most of the action takes place, and two side panels that serve as curtained doors. Father Winter, played by big Luverne Seifert, opens Pageant with a song and a bit of audience revving. His jolly presence suggests that this figure might have been a precursor for Santa Claus. Seifert also epitomizes earthy mankind in the form of Tud, a low, barely articulate bumpkin of a fellow, who is also naive and kind. Plump and rosy-cheeked, Seifert plays Tud with comic flair, as he bumbles through the story and comes into his own as one of three shepherds.
A trap door opens, lit flickering red from below in Michael Murnane's artful lighting design, and out pops Teuful, a junior devil, who is anxious to please her master, Lucifer. Versatile Sarah Agnew plays both Teuful and Matin, a junior angel. She infuses both roles with energy, finding Teuful's feistiness and Matin's sweetness, and she's a master of eye-blink costume change.
Susan Haas' striking costume design ranges from magnificent duds for Father Winter, to homespun for the shepherds and extravagantly oddball angel outfits.
Sommers fills the role of a snooping Lucifer, anxious to discover God's new plan to redeem mankind from the Fall that he masterminded in Eden. Lucifer's conversations with God are clever. The devil looks up into a bright light, and God's arguing voice comes in the form of John Huth's chatty trumpet. Huth, well feathered in an elaborate angel costume, also plays the Archangel Gabriel, who speaks only through a variety of wind instruments.
Back to his full comic strength once more, after his injury, Kevin Kling plays both an aging Joseph and Mak, a tippling shepherd. Mary, in the person of Amy Mathews, looks as though she might have stepped out of an oil painting. She plays the amusing Annunciation scene just slightly tongue-in-cheek.
Noah Sommers Haas and ballerina Dierdre Murnane round out the cast, along with Susan Haas and her group of musicians, and an array of cleverly used pole, glove and stick puppets.
Although earthy humor clomps through much of Pageant, Sommers keeps it harmless enough for children of, say eight and up, to enjoy the fun.
Part of Pageant's charm is the homemade feel of the production. Its simplicity and the sheer creativity of its Jeune Lune-style playfulness gives the production an appealing ingenuousness, perhaps much like the original miracle plays, enacted on village greens.
The Holiday Pageant Until December 21, 2003. Friday and Saturday 8:00 p.m. Sunday 7:00 p.m. Matinees Thursday and Saturday, Sunday 2:00 p.m. $10 - 16. Open Eye Figure Theatre, Franklin Art Works, 1021, East Franklin Avenue, Minneapolis. Call 612-823-5162.