at In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre
through December 21
The first thing that strikes you about La Natividad is its logistical efficiency: Somehow you and more than a hundred other folks move between El Mercado Central and Plaza Verde on Lake Street, join up with another group at Avalon Theatre, then the mass of you walk the two blocks to St. Paul's Evangelical Lutheran Church, where this original Nativity story comes to full flower (you're then given a snack for your trouble). The second thing that hits home is the invention and grace of this Sandy Spieler-directed production, a mesh of music, puppetry, and live action that recasts the already strange story of Jesus' birth into something that combines both the transcendent and the specific. In the beginning we have Maria (the major roles are performed by multiple actors) visited by a larger-than-life angel, who assists God in knocking her up. In the next scene we have José, who, besides fretting about the prospect of caring for a child who isn't his, worries about the intricacies of his citizenship status. Back at Heart of the Beast's home theater, we meet King Herod (Ben Kreilkamp), as evil as we always knew him, now hell-bent on keeping outsiders from crossing his borders. The audience takes to the street (15th Avenue, actually), where Herod rages from atop a riser, denying passage for Maria and José (and for us, as well), but soon enough the old bastard is vanquished and everyone marches en masse to the church. From there, a gorgeous procession of puppet animals makes its way down the aisle to pay tribute to baby Jesus, the music swells, and we're left feeling as though we've made a journey both cosmic and earthly (the mass march is a reflection of Las Posadas, a Mexican tradition that depicts Mary and Joseph looking for shelter). Religious and spiritual considerations aside, this Natividad pulls off a nifty trick: If one definition of realizing our humanity is drawing near one another to achieve greater understanding, this show manages it in abundance.