By DAVID DUPONT
BG Independent News
As an exasperated father observes early in “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” there’s never anything different in the church’s Christmas pageant.
Just the usual shepherds in bathrobes, endearingly oblivious baby angels, and the usual characters playing Mary and Joseph. Staging Barbara Robinson’s “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” again may seem to risk lapsing into familiarity.
The Black Swamp Players in collaboration with the Horizon Youth Theatre bring the holiday classic back after an absence of two years. But with a new director, Keith Guion, at the helm, and some new faces in the cast, and familiar faces in different roles, the audience doesn’t need to worry about being lulled into complacency.
The show is on stage at the First United Methodist Church, 1526 E. Wooster, Bowling Green, Friday, Dec. 1 and Saturday, Dec. 2, at 7 p.m. and Sunday, Dec. 3, at 2 p.m. Tickets are available at blackswampplayers.org and at the door.
What’s intact is the play’s message – that the most unlikely people can teach the most profound lessons.
There is something comforting in the ritual though. Just as the Christmas pageant opens with “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a degree,” “The Best Christmas Pageant,” opens with Beth Bradley (Calista Wilkins) declaring: “The Herdmans were the worst kids in the whole history of the world.”
It’s the play’s “Marley was dead,” to cite another Christmas classic, nothing good can come from the fable unless that fact is believed and understood.
The Herdmans are pint-sized arsonists, cigar chomping, doughnut stealing, bullys in what appears to be an otherwise tranquil, small town, maybe not so unlike Bowling Green.
That makes this comic morality tale a perfect fit for our community troupes. We get to see folks we know take on these roles.
Like the Christmas story, this centers on family. Beth Bradley is our guide. She’s observant and just questioning enough of the town’s mores to serve as the lens through which to see the story.
Her brother Charlie (Eli Marx) gets to express much more boldly what Beth implies. We see where the kids get their sass when we meet their father (Thomas Edge), who cast a jaundiced eye on the whole church pageant hullabaloo.
Grace Bradley (Cassie Greenlee) is the put-upon mom called in when the long-time director and church control freak Mrs. Armstrong (Linda Lee) is laid up and cannot perform all her usual holiday functions.
For Grace having to live up to tradition is bad enough. Then the Herdmans arrive trolling for dessert.
The six Herdmans are led by Imogene (Maggie Titus) who is probably as much a mother figure as this brood has. Then there’s Ralph (Vance Weaver), Ollie (Bella Truman), Claude (Jonah Truman), Leroy (Drew Thomas), and Gladys (Emy Wilkins), the smallest but most feared. She hits hard and bites.
The brood takes over the pageant assuming all the best parts, from Imogene as Mary through Gladys as the angel of the Lord. They certainly have their own way with these roles. The church ladies complain that Imogene was found in costume smoking a cigar in the church rest room, and Gladys wants nothing to do with the “unto you” lines, she’d rather greet the shepherds with “Shazaam!”
Yet beauty emerges from the chaos.
This forces the community out of its complacency, and to look at the too familiar Bible story with new eyes. We see that the Herdmans may have more in common with the Holy Family than the comfortable congregation.
In this season so controlled by tradition, the message that shaking things up isn’t a bad idea, and may be truer to the holiday spirit, is a welcome tonic.