The setup: For several years, New Carpa has presented an annual holiday pastorela in the Valley. Following a centuries-old tradition, the play incorporates iconoclastic, topical political humor into the story of shepherds traveling to visit the Christ Child, culminating in a battle between Satan and the Archangel Gabriel (because most other nativity tales are short on violent action).
This year, in Arizona Pastorela: Mission to Mars, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio returns as a character, leading a posse to Mars in his continued search for evidence that President Obama is an alien. Meanwhile, Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne fails as hard at being genuinely, Hitler- and Gaddafi-level evil as he does at . . . well, a number of things, apparently.
The execution: Coherent plot takes something of a back seat in this pageant, but, after all, God (who is also a character) works in mysterious ways. Though the play is relatively long (there is an intermission) and the pacing is at a stereotypically community-theater level (though the people who do the scene changes are fast, quiet, and awesome), there's plenty going on to keep you engaged -- such as a sassy teenage girl Satan constantly changing (as girls tend to do) bondage-y red and black outfits, little green Spanish-speaking Martians so cute you could eat them like cake pops, a moment of Gangnam Style (of course), and a family of Sonoran goat ranchers that includes a devotedly cosplaying big brother and a tiny, boa-clad sister who bursts into Broadway production numbers at moments both opportune and not.
Those are some of the parts that make the most sense, by the way. Other conventions that might make your head spin (if you had time to think) would be the way La Diabla randomly offers mortals the success they dream of in exchange not for their souls, but just for little favors she needs, and the way everyone from Earth can breathe on Mars. But hey, no one said this is a documentary.
Many of the 21 actors play more than one role, so Dilcia Yanez Rokusek's costumes are extremely helpful, and so are the performers' largely successful efforts to distinguish among the characters. For example, Kyswan Diggs and Robert Peters actually affect appropriate accents and speech patterns to play Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, a strategy that's rarely employed by local sketch comedians, in my experience.
Director Alex Sanchez Vega manages to wrangle a cast of actors with a wide range of experience levels to all be nice and loud and energetic. Their skills are particularly evident when passages of pedantic progressive dogma have to be spewed out in a purposely self-conscious, tongue-in-cheek manner. It's supposed to be for comic effect underlaid with social consciousness, and most of the time it actually works, even when it's the job of 8-year-old Shannon Amjadi. The cast appears to be enjoying themselves, though chemistry and character-based comedy are a bit scarce.
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In this production, God is a voice from offstage, and it's a shame that Skye Ayers' lines are delivered into a sound system that renders them super-fuzzy and muddy. God needs to sound good. And Mike Van Liew, who brings a very cool, clean-cut, sword-wielding interpretation to Gabriel, is marooned onstage at one point pretending to play the entire intro of "Stairway to Heaven" on a keyboard before Ayers sings a few words and gets the scene's dialogue and action started. Nothing else happens during that sequence; it feels like a bad call.
The verdict: This year's Pastorela is a bit uneven, but, especially as shows with huge casts go, it's a fun, ripped-from-the-headlines, pungently local way to get familiar with the tradition. Arizona Pastorela: Mission to Mars continues through Sunday, December 9, at the Little Theatre at Phoenix Theatre, 100 East McDowell Road. Tickets are $12.50, order here or call 602-254-2151. Discount tickets for children are available if you order by phone or visit the box office in person. Revenue from tonight's show (Thursday, December 6) benefits Aguila Youth Leadership Institute.