Bathed in blood-red light and flicking his tongue like a curious snake, Lucifer emerges in smoke from the underworld looking like the evil incarnate we expect. But he’s frowning, and it’s not his usual rictus of malevolence. Lucifer looks like he could use a hug because people are being evil and heinous all by themselves, taking away his joy and reason for being.
So Lucifer, having grown tired of winning, high-tails it to the pearly gates to complain.
Lucifer (Pearce Bunting) is perhaps the striking figure in “The Holiday Pageant,” which opened Saturday at Open Eye Figure Theatre in Minneapolis. It’s not just his entrance. Bunting delivers him with entertaining relish in an organic over-the-top show drawn from two medieval mystery plays.
Accompanied by a big choir and featuring a scale-adjusting mix of human and puppet characters, “Pageant” offers a ribald riff on the nativity stories that spring up around the holidays.
Theater founders Michael Sommers and Susan Haas, who also are a couple, started doing “Pageant” 34 years ago in their home before taking it public in 2001. Over the years, successive iterations have been dominated either by puppets or people. This year’s version harmonizes both as the narrative is told with tongue firmly in cheek.
For all its size, “Pageant” retains its homespun feel. Sommers wrote, directed and designed the show, in which he also has played Lucifer. Haas, who plays trombone and serves as music director of the choir, designed the garish costumes. Their children, Zoe Jethro Sommers Haas and Noah Sommers Haas, each play multiple roles, including, respectively, Satan’s minion Teufel and Joseph.
Both are experienced performers with a strong sense of how to put their characters thoughts in physical motion. Zoe Jethro Sommers Haas’ solicitous Teufel works hard to please her master, even if the devil’s helper takes some comic abuse along the way.
Showing her range, the actor also plays the angel Matin with openness, light and innocence.
Noah Sommers Haas’ Joseph is a simpleton who really wants to believe that Mary (Liz Howls) is with child because of a holy copulation (realized comically with angel wings, music and heavy breathing). We’re not quite sure if Joseph is naive, self-deluded or a servant of some otherworldly inspiration. But the actor makes it funny.
For her part, Howls’ Mary has the deadpan attitude of a character caught between a manic “Saturday Night Live” sketch and dry public radio report.
We expect the devil to be the most charismatic part of the show, and Bunting does not disappoint. His Lucifer is so stylish, even his shoes are painted different colors (one red, one black). And while the portrayal is scary and histrionic enough, Bunting nails Lucifer’s quiet moments, turning on the charm and pathos.
“Pageant” is loaded with inventiveness. God speaks through musical instruments (trumpeter Josh Castillo articulates divine words in beautifully expressive tones). And Fluffsie the puppet lamb offers a nice touch in a work that marks the holidays with blushing cheekiness.