La Pastorela del Cielo

Angels and Devils Battle Again in San Diego’s Most Popular Holiday Show at San Diego Rep


San Diego’s longest-running professional theatre production is celebrating its 23rd anniversary this year, but Lucifer is sneering.  The F. Scott Fitzgerald-quoting Prince of Darkness and his minions are making plans to ruin Christmas.

“La Pastorela del Cielo,” the newest in Teatro Mascara Magica’s award-winning series of Mexican-inspired Christmas musicals, once again features the timeless battle between Lucifer’s forces of evil and Michael the Archangel’s champions of goodness set in today’s world of chaos and hope.  Angels and devils do battle in 2013 disguises including zombies, the Lone Ranger and Tonto, Captain Kirk and Spock, and the Man of Steel. Even the Great Gatsby throws a party, Old Sport.

La Pastorela is our gift to this great community,” said playwright Dr. Max Branscomb.  “It is a lot of fun and a reminder that people of good will can make a difference in our world.”

“La Pastorela del Cielo” is a contemporary borderlands twist on the traditional story of the shepherds’ journey to Bethlehem to witness the first Christmas.  Called to action by Archangels Michael and Gabriel, the shepherds face temptation and danger from evil Lucifer and his nasty crew.  The bilingual script is primarily in English with Christmas carols sung in Spanish.

Written by Dr. Max Branscomb and directed by William Virchis, “La Pastorela del Cielo” runs Dec. 12-15 and 18-21 at 7:30 p.m., and 2 p.m. Dec. 14, 15, 21 and 22 at the Lyceum Theater in Horton Plaza.  Tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for students, military and groups and $7 for children under 12 or groups of 10 or more.  For reservations call (619) 544-1000.

Cast members include some of San Diego’s most popular actors.  Brian Doig is Lucifer, the rock star Prince of Darkness.  Timothy Paul Evans is the wise hermit Soledad. Dave Rivas and Rhys Green are the devils Satan and Moloch. Willie Green plays Michael the Archangel, aided by Edwin Ortiz as Gabriel. Featured shepherds include Paul Araujo, Natalee Nordfeld and Julie Inserra.

La pastorela is a folk art form that dates back to the beginning of Christianity.   During the second century early Christians in hiding acted out the Christmas story to hand it down in the oral tradition.  It survived as an underground movement until the Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in the fourth century.

The Spaniards brought it to Mexico in the 1540s and it became that country’s most popular form of theatre.  More than 2,500 variations are produced south of the border.  Almost every city, town and village in Mexico has its own version of la pastorela.

A pastorela is the tale of the shepherd’s journey to Bethlehem to witness the first Christmas.  It is the B-plot of the nativity, a journey fraught with temptation, distraction and mortal peril as the devils try to prevent the shepherds from reaching their special destination.  It is a traditional morality play full of choices and introspection, but presented with levity, music, beautiful costumes and poetic dialogue.  Pastorelas are written entirely in verse, like a Yuletide Dr. Seuss story.

TMM and the Old Globe Theater developed and produced the first English language pastorela in San Diego in 1991 at the Globe.  The play appeals to English and Spanish speakers alike.  The text is in English and the beautiful Christmas songs are in Spanish.  Raul Moncada of the Globe wrote the first script and mentored Branscomb, who has written the show for 21 years.  Virchis has directed or co-directed 22 of the 23 productions.

Branscomb’s devils and angels are masters of disguise who appear throughout the shepherd’s journey as historic and contemporary characters.  His pastorelas have inspired theatre companies throughout the United States to produce their own.  Branscomb has written nearly 50 pastorelas for companies in Tucson, Los Angeles, San Jose, Bakersfield, Phoenix, Cincinnati, Nogales, Mexico and other cities on both sides of the border.

Besides his work with Teatro Mascara Magica, Branscomb is the founder and artistic director of the Bonitafest Melodrama, San Diego County’s longest-running theatre production.  It celebrated its 36th season in 2013.  Branscomb is San Diego County’s most commissioned playwright.  He has authored more than 80 produced plays and musicals for more than 20 theater companies across the nation, including the critically-acclaimed Dia de los Muertos comedy “Journey of the Skeletons” produced this fall. He is a professor of journalism at Southwestern College and adviser of “The Sun,” America’s #1-ranked collegiate newspaper.

Virchis is professor emeritus of theatre at Southwestern College and a well-known local stage director.  He has directed acclaimed productions of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Zoot Suit” and “Let the Eagle Fly,” as well as the national touring production of “Selena Forever.”  Old Globe founder Craig Noel once called Virchis “the county’s boldest and most daring director.”

Virchis and Branscomb first teamed up in 1992 to update and revise the Lerner-Lowe musical “Paint Your Wagon” at Starlite Musical Theatre.  Virchis asked Branscomb to rewrite the cliched Latino character Julio from a shuffling Mexican knockabout to a proud indigenous hero.  The revision played to sold-old audiences at Starlite and was named Best Play of the Season by San Diego’s theatre critics.  They also worked together as playwright and director of DiverCity Works Theatre and the annual Martin Luther King Breakfast for the National Conference of Community and Justice, America’s oldest civil rights organization.