The Butterfingers Angel, Mary & Joseph, Herod the Nut and the Slaughter of 12 Hit Carols in a Pear Tree | Stray Dog Theatre

The-Butterflies-Angel 75The Butterfingers Angel is a lovely holiday gift from one of St. Louis’ consistently finest and most popular theatre companies.

The-Butterflies-Angel 500

Yes, that is really the title, and if you only know playwright William Gibson from The Miracle Worker, this funny and profound retelling of the nativity will surprise and likely delight you. Gibson was approached to write something for his church at Christmastime in 1975, and this “pageant” was the result.

The large cast, made up of adults and young people, play roles associated with traditional retellings of the story of Jesus’ birth — some are human, like Grace Clark as a typical girl of the village, and others are not as you will see below. At the center of the action are young Mary (Colleen M. Backer) and the considerably older Joseph (Stephen Peirick with a lot of gray brushed into his hair and beard). Mary makes it clear to two of the women in the village (Sarajane Alverson and Ashley D. Alcamo) that she does not want to be married and have children like they do. She is one of 19 siblings herself, 17 of them Neanderthal-like brothers, so she’s not anxious to make a family. She wants to be free to choose her own life. She also believes persistent suitor Joseph, while a skilled carpenter and good provider who adores her, is too old for her. So she resists his blandishments until she is visited by the first title character, the (Butterfingers) Angel of the Lord (Joseph Corey Henke), who brings the “good news” that she is with child, though untouched by man.

Confused, really confused as only Colleen Backer can be, once she accepts her “condition,” she seeks out Joseph and asks him to marry her. Though the clumsy Angel has visited Joseph in a dream, he can’t really remember it, and he wants to know who fathered her child. When she sees he isn’t going to believe the truth, she concocts a ridiculous lie, but he doesn’t believe that either. Finally, when she tells him that she will cook for him, keep his house, obey him, and both she and the child will love him, he relents (though he seems to have forgotten her declaration of love later on). Unlike the gullible Joseph the New Testament describes, this one stays jealous and pissed off until almost right up to the point the baby is born. Even then, he accuses the Angel of being the baby daddy because the infant looks like him. But he does love and protect both Madonna and Child and his goodness is only enhanced by his human weaknesses. For Mary’s part, she’s the brains of the outfit and proves herself resourceful and resilient throughout their story.

A courier (John Reidy) shows up to deliver the news of a census which has been decreed so that all may be taxed. He also has a coat lining filled with stolen goods he’s selling (“pregnancy pearls” is the funniest item), symbolizing bureaucratic greed, even in Biblical times. But everyone prepares to comply by returning to their hometowns — for Joseph, this is Bethlehem — to be counted. Mary is too close to delivering her baby to be left alone but also that will make travel difficult, so the Angel (who Joseph dearly wishes would leave, but he won’t) secures a donkey (Kevin Connelly), who ends up being weaker than Mary.

Connelly is very funny in the role. He is also one of the animals who are fantasizing about taking the world back from the humans who use and abuse them. He’s in cahoots with Sheep (Ellie Lore), whose drinking water has been polluted by washing dirty diapers in the river, and Cow (Olivia Light) who is constantly victimized by having her udders squeezed every morning, as she puts it, and living in fear of Mary’s brothers who want to throw her in the fire for dinner, just like they once did their baby sister. (This is also the biggest reason Mary knows she can’t live at home with her child).

So, on they march, a ragtag band, consisting of a crabby old man, a young but still optimistic pregnant girl, a weak “beast of burden” (a term Donkey resents), and a sickly angel (his stomach is too upset to eat). As these events unfold, we meet the truly scary King Herod the Nut, a raving psychopath who loves to play drums with skins made from wives and in-laws who have gotten on his bad side, and a menace to all of society. When the Magi (played by the same actors as Mary’s brothers, Mitch Eagles, Jan Niehoff, and Andrew S. Kuhlman) wander into his palace, they are terrified of him. They are hopelessly lost trying to follow the star to the babe who is destined to be lord of all creation. Herod has heard this news in “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” so the other kings’ presence seals the deal. He orders the slaughter of the innocents — all newborn and young children and pregnant mothers.

There are a lot of wordplay and sight gags. For example, the Angel made a reservation for the “Bridal Suite” at the Inn, but misspelled his request and got for “bridle suite.” His language skills are terrible all around, and Joseph is constantly correcting him. Alyssa Ward as Tree (and a versatile one — she bears pears, cherries, and just regular branches, both living and dead) is extremely crabby because the Angel took away her fur coat (her “bark”). She also hates being rooted in one spot because she wants to be a dancer. But later when the Angel trades places with her, a truly ominous moment occurs when a soldier is told not to cut it down because someday it will make excellent wood for a cross. Traditional carols are sung in whole or parts throughout the show, the most touching for me is the lesser known Act I closer “Maria Walks Amid the Thorns,” a duet between Alverson and Kuhlman, the strongest singers in the cast.

Adam Rugo, the musical director for the production, plays a troubadour who wanders around strumming his guitar, and he is representative of a specific time period in the 1960s, shortly before the play was written. Director Gary F. Bell decided to dress the characters in what he and costume designer Alexandra Scibetta Quigley came to describe as “Biblical-Hippie” when they noticed that the flowing robes associated with the people who lived at the time of Christ’s birth and those adopted by the mid-20th century “flower children” had much in common. So, Mary wears an A-line dress (blue, of course), Joseph is robed more traditionally, but other cast members display everyday tee shirts, leggings, and accessories consistent with the ‘60s. The set by Scenic Artist Matthew Stuckel is minimal but utilitarian and versatile. Tyler Duenow’s lights are generally right for the mood of the scenes but seemed a bit dim now and then.

Bell has directed his cast to play “audience” when they aren’t in a scene, so it’s fun to see them become “us” when they’re watching the action from upstage. It provides a sense of unity between actors and spectators that is rare. The message of this show is the same as it has been for 2,000 years: “Love one another as I have loved you.” If we could only follow that maxim, we would be able to live in harmony with all God’s creatures in a new Eden in which God may or may not actually exist in a form we could recognize from our Bible. As the Angel repeatedly learns, God doesn’t answer us in a way that we can hear through our ears, but because the Spirit is everywhere and in everything, we have to learn to listen with our hearts. Well-acted (Backer, Peirick, and Reidy stand out, but everyone is very good) and directed, The Butterfingers Angel is a lovely holiday gift from one of St. Louis’ consistently finest and most popular theatre companies. | Andrea Braun

The Butterfingers Angel runs through Dec. 21 at Stray Dog Theatre. You may contact straydogtheatre.org.

Photos: John Lamb

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