Angst dogs the manger in quirky Rep Stage show

December 18, 2008|By William Hyder | William Hyder,Special to The Baltimore Sun

The Virgin Mary as a fiery women's libber? Joseph as an insecure, self-doubting man? The angel Gabriel as an inexperienced, error-prone teenage boy?

William Gibson's quirky, colorful and spectacular take on the Christmas story - The Butterfingers Angel, Mary & Joseph, Herod the Nut & the Slaughter of 12 Hit Carols in a Pear Tree - is at Rep Stage through Jan. 4.

The compendious title recalls the names given to Christmas pantomimes in Victorian England, such as Harlequin and the Old Man of the Sea, the Emperor, the Ogre, the Good Fairy, and the Princess.

The Butterfingers Angel, in fact, resembles an English pantomime in many ways. It is based on a well-known story, has a large cast and boasts colorful costumes and sets.

It makes a comic virtue of anachronisms (actors in Biblical costume carry modern props such as plastic detergent jugs and ring-binder notebooks). Familiar tunes are interpolated into the action (in Gibson's case, Christmas carols and folk songs).

The show also contains a great deal of comedy - but here the resemblance to English "panto" ceases. For all its funny moments, The Butterfingers Angel carries a serious message and ends in heavy drama.

Gibson, who died last month at 94, is better known as the author of The Miracle Worker. In The Butterfingers Angel, he invests the familiar Biblical characters with contemporary speech and attitudes.

As he tells it, Mary grew up with 17 oafish brothers. She had to be aggressive to survive. Joseph is in love with her, but she is not interested in marriage, and anyway Joseph is too old.

Mary doesn't want to have children - to be just a cow, as she puts it. She wants to be someone special.

When the angel tells her that although she is a virgin, she is carrying a child sent by God, Mary resists angrily. Gradually, though, she accepts the situation. This is, after all, a way of being someone special.

Realizing that she has to marry to gain respectability for the baby, she pursues Joseph. As an older man he is strong and reliable. Joseph doesn't feel strong and reliable. He is secretly aware of his weaknesses, but as a man he can't show them.

The script faithfully follows the Gospel narrative: The couple travel to Bethlehem and find lodgings in a stable; the baby is delivered; they are visited by wise men; King Herod fears the baby's power and orders all children 2 years old and younger to be killed; Joseph and Mary flee to Egypt with the infant Jesus.

Lauren Williams makes a strong, energetic Mary. Dan Manning plays Joseph with authority, humor and a fine singing voice. As the angel Gabriel, Travis Hudson touchingly portrays a youth struggling to overcome his inadequacy. (Although equipped with the traditional trumpet, he can't play it.)

Timothy Andres Pabon portrays evil in three guises - an enigmatic man in a modern gray suit and tie, a courier whose Hispanic accent goes oddly with his Biblical garments, and King Herod, whose megalomania and paranoia bring the show to its tragic but hopeful climax. Pabon invests each character with an individual brand of subtle menace.

Director Lee Mikeska Gardner keeps the production going smoothly and with solid dramatic effect.

Rep Stage presents William Gibson's "The Butterfingers Angel, Mary & Joseph, Herod the Nut & the Slaughter of 12 Hit Carols in a Pear Tree" through Jan. 4 at Smith Theatre, Horowitz Center, Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Sundays. 410-772-4900, or

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