PBS nativity story has music and comedy

Tonight's edition of PBS' "Great Performances" is not your standard, garden variety Christmas special.

Suffice it to say that instead of a heartwarming, problem-solving, gee-it's-great-to-be-together-at-the-holidays family reunion plot, you get an updated, semi-comic yet still serious and slightly musical version of the Christmas story as told in the New Testament. It comes off something like a Hispanic version of "The Wizard of Oz" as told by Lewis Carroll.


Actually, "La Pastorela," which will be on Maryland Public Television, channels 22 and 67, at 9 o'clock, is the work of Luis Valdez, the playwright-director who was responsible for the movie "La Bamba."

It's a fantasy based on a 1,000-year-old Spanish tradition that took root in Mexico. "La Pastorela," which means "The Shepherd's Play," is a morality play based on the birth of Christ, acted out in churches at Christmas.


What distinguishes it from the Christmas stories and plays and pageants we Anglos are used to north of the border is that not all is sweetness and light in "La Pastorela." This story does not wait for King Herod to order the deaths of all infants to confront opposition to the newborn king. It has its characters take on the battle with evil right from the start, acknowledging even in this celebration of light the constant existence of darkness.

Of course when Valdez has his characters take on evil in the form of comedian Paul Rodriguez as ol' el Diablo himself, and Cheech Marin as one of his many forms -- a fakir who's faking it -- well, you know you're not in Kansas any more.

The story begins amid a group of migrant farm workers in California, a family getting together for Christmas, preparing to go to church for a performance of "La Pastorela." But, as 15-year-old Gila leans in for a better look, a piece of the podium falls from the pulpit and knocks her unconscious.

Next thing she knows, Linda Ronstadt as the archangel Michael is up in the sky leading an a capella group, announcing the birth of Christ. She rounds up the group of shepherds who are in the vicinity, as well as the local hermit, and convinces them that they must set out for Bethlehem to see this new baby.

They don't follow the Yellow Brick Road, but, as in "The Wizard of Oz," the characters are slightly askew versions of those from Gila's conscious life.

And they don't encounter the Wicked Witch of the West, but Rodriguez's version of Satan as the leader of a mean-spirited motorcycle gang throws enough obstacles in their path.

Basically, the obstacles are in the form of rather classic temptations -- money, sex, power and such -- that always turn the heads of the male shepherds, but never that of true believer Gila. Her pleas and admonitions, along with crucial appearances by Ronstadt and her backup group, are all that keep these guys on the straight and narrow.

What is intriguing about "La Pastorela" is its wide swings in tone and mood. When Marin shows up as a saxophone-playing


master of a harem, riding on a magic carpet that rises into the air courtesy of a forklift, we are clearly in the realm of low comedy, an area not often visited by tales of Christ's birth.

But when Rodriguez's Satan offers his vision of the death on the cross of this new baby, the drama is intense and moving. Such an extremely angular construction is risky, and "La Pastorela" does not always work, but it is consistently interesting.

Valdez uses contemporary icons in his script. A low-rider '55 Chevy even drives through at one point. Undoubtedly, "La Pastorela" has a deeper resonance with those familiar with the traditional play who are also conversant with the current Latino culture. But it works even for Anglos who are ignorant of Hispanic ways.

With "La Pastorela," Valdez is continuing an ancient and honorable tradition of the Catholic Church. Wherever it has gone with its proselytizing message, it has adapted itself to the surroundings, absorbing and including the traditions of the local culture into its own traditional message and liturgy.

That is exactly what Valdez is doing as he takes the tale of Christ's birth and proves that it is indeed timeless and that its message of hope and triumph can leap over cultural barriers as easily as Dorothy went over that rainbow.