If you want to glean a sense of the transformative power of masks watch as Maria dons the Virgin Mary mask in La Natividad (a co-production of In The Heart Of The Beast Puppet And Mask Theatre and St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, through Dec 22). Suddenly the performer, who had been merely human, becomes… Well, to say that Maria becomes larger-than-life denigrates this astonishing transformation. Her slightest head-tilt, smallest turn, a mere gesture makes Mary super-human. The mask mesmerizes, makes her an uber-mother. It gives the nativity story fresh intensity and relevance.
Who designs these masks? HOBT artistic director Sandy Spieler is listed as “Director and Designer” so she heads the list of persons of interest. I suspect, though, that there is more than one puppeteer: were the ten feet tall Wise Men and the lovely flying goose designed by the same artist? No matter. The work is exquisite and it is the achievement of Spieler and her fellow artists at HOBT to harness the mysterious and ancient power of masks to create unique and powerful contemporary theater.
La Natividad tells the familiar Christmas story: Maria and José are in Nazareth “in the bleak mid-winter,” desperate to find warmth and respite so that Mary can birth her precious baby in peace. The Wise Men, the Shepherds and the Angels lead them down 15th Avenue. King Herod and his dastardly cohorts attempt to block the 29th Street bridge, but there is too much love in air; soon we break through his barrier and are welcomed into St. Paul’s church on 28th. A celebration and a feast follow forthwith.
La Natividad is bilingual, but really, they could delete the text entirely and the material would still ring true. The story unfolds slowly, so leave those faster-funnier expectations in the car. The play moves from venue to venue, including a stately two block stroll to St. Paul’s. Dress appropriately (don’t wear flip-flops).
And come. There is nothing like HOBT. The price is right ($20 adults/$16 children and seniors; “no one turned away for lack of funds”). Bring your kids. This is my favorite Christmas play this season and I bet it will be yours as well.
For more info about John Olive please visit his website.