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'La Natividad' brings people together for the holidays

Courtesy of In The Heart of the Beast

Courtesy of In The Heart of the Beast

This season, many people have found it tough to get in the Christmas spirit. At the end of a brutal year, La Natividad serves as a glowing reminder that faith, cheer, and hope aren’t just fuzzy feelings: They inspire concrete actions that are needed now more than ever.

La Natividad

In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre
$17-$23 (no one turned away for lack of funds).

An annual holiday tradition at In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre, La Natividad is co-presented with St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, which hosts a soup social after every performance. That’s where audiences end up after following Maria and José on their bilingual journey to Bethlehem, by way of a Mexican restaurant and a showdown in the street.

Diners at Lake Street’s Las Mojarras Restaurant look on as La Natividad begins with the Annunciation: Maria (a role shared between Vianey Occelly Pena Torres and Esther Ouray) is visited by a procession of winged cherubs, led by dancer Rebekah Crisanta and followed by the first of many awe-inspiring puppets in the company’s signature oversized style. This one is the Angel Gabriel (Greg Leierwood), whose moon-shaped head indicates his heavenly provenance.

The show then moves to the nearby Jigjiga Center, where an initially skeptical José (a small puppet) struggles with his newfound responsibilities. After that, the audience walks down to the Avalon Theatre (In the Heart of the Beast’s home), where kids bearing stars wake the shepherds and share the good news. Three wise ones (more large puppets) arrive, and meet the hateful King Herod (Paul Robinson).

As Maria and José (now full-sized) make their way down 15th Avenue, they’re stopped by Herod and his soldiers, intent on sealing their border. The pasty-white king, though, is overwhelmed by a crowd carrying a BIENVENIDOS banner, and the Holy Family are ushered into St. Paul’s to be greeted by a host of animals in puppet form.

The show is a strange and wonderful experience, with live music by several instrumentalists and an angel choir pervading the alternately somber and silly proceedings. Directed and designed by Sandy Spieler, La Natividad is truly a community celebration. Dramaturgically, it may be lumpy (the Jigjiga interlude, for example, is an odd and talky detour), but its rough edges are part of its charm.

It’s also a distinctly theatrical take on the Christmas story. The company’s large puppets, with their haunting expressions and gentle movements, have a singular presence; and the joy of the performers, diverse in age as well as ethnicity, is palpable. This month’s polar vortex conditions only add to the magic, turning up the contrast between the bleak street scenes and the warm indoor episodes.

The actual baby who played Jesus on Sunday night deserves a special Ivey for summoning what can only be described as an authentically beatific glow. As the kids and the puppets and the singers and the audience swirled into a boisterous dance that filled the St. Paul’s sanctuary, the infant looked down from Maria’s arms, beaming in delight at just how wonderful the world suddenly seemed to have become.

IF YOU GO:

La Natividad 

In the Heart of the Beast Puppet  and MaskTheatre
1500 E. Lake St., Minneapolis
612-721-2535; through December 22