THEATER | Open Eye Figure Theatre’s Holiday Pageant gets cozier, darker

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Open Eye Figure Theatre is billing this year’s production of its annual Holiday Pageant as a homecoming. The pageant began 24 years ago just a few blocks from Open Eye’s storefront theater, in the living room of company founders Michael Sommers and Susan Haas. In recent years, the show has been a (relatively) lavish production happening only once annually, at the Pantages Theatre; this year, Open Eye is staging a three-week run in its own space.

The pageant is inspired by Elizabethan miracle plays, public retellings of the Christmas story that grew progressively more ribald until they were suppressed by a testy post-Reformation Church. Open Eye’s version is framed by episodes involving Satan (Sommers) and his Wormwood-like minion Teufel (Elise Langer). Mary (Liz Schachertle) and Joseph (Andy Kraft) are left alone—they have enough to worry about—but the hapless shepherds (Schachertle, Kraft, and a rotating cast of children) find their pets stolen, their meals animated, and themselves transformed into fowl. On Annunciation duty are Gabriel (Laura Lechner) and the wingless angel-in-training Matin (Langer). As the story proceeds, songs and sundry noises are contributed by a 12-person choir.

Open Eye’s signature is Sommers’s inventive puppetry, and there’s a lot more of it to enjoy in the small-scale version of the production. The Pantages version (which I reviewed for the Daily Planet in 2007 and 2008) featured an all-star cast including Kevin Kling as Joseph, Luverne Seifert as a shepherd, and Sarah Agnew as Teufel and Matin; now, the shepherds are marionettes and Schachertle and Kraft play the Holy Couple on their knees, with puppet bodies. One can’t help missing the former stars, but the current cast members gamely make hay with Sommers’s winkingly irreverent script. The petite Langer scampers among the puppets; at Friday’s opening night performance, she earned many giggles from the small children in the audience. Schachertele and Kraft play Mary and Joseph as a devout but frustrated duo who seem not to quite understand why doing the Lord’s work must necessarily involve labor pains and an ass ride across the Holy Land.

holiday pageant, playing through december 23 at open eye theatre. for tickets ($18) and information, see openeyetheatre.org.

Without a doubt, compared to the Pantages spectacular, the pageant’s current manifestation is a purer distillation of Sommers’s vision. Not only are there more puppets, up close their grotesqueness is more immediately apparent. Sommers’s Lucifer looks and sounds as he did at the Pantages, but whereas that larger theater brought out the comic aspects of his character, on the Open Eye stage he looks dark and desperate, lipstick smeared across his face like blood and spit flying into the front rows as he curses that God who shows such inexplicable love for the mortal, lustful, drunken, lazy humans portrayed in the pageant.

Especially in its new staging, Open Eye’s Holiday Pageant is one of the most fascinating and disturbing holiday shows in town. The kids who were laughing at Langer’s early antics seemed a little taken aback by the end of the pageant, with Sommers breaking a lamb’s neck and a shepherd-turned-rooster trying to mount a shepherd-turned-hen. And yet the production is fundamentally joyful, radiating a strange but unmistakable warmth. It’s certainly a family affair, with Haas visible at stage left directing the music (she plays the accordion herself, and voices Gabriel by playing a trombone), Sommers on stage looking appropriately tortured in furry pants and mismatched boots, their children taking turns playing Father Winter, and other family members singing in the choir.

Should you bring your family? Yes, if you’re looking for a show that conveys the holiday spirit in a clever, challenging, and boldly subversive manner. Audience members who step into the Sommers-Haas “living room” looking for something merely warm and fuzzy, though, may be reminded of the tag line for the 1991 Addams Family movie: “Weird is relative.”

This event is featured in the Daily Planet’s complete guide to holiday theater. Throughout the holiday season, the guide will be updated with links to new Daily Planet reviews—so you know who’s been naughty and who’s been nice.