Open Eye's 'Holiday Pageant' is a subversive treat

'Holiday Pageant' at Open Eye Theatre

'Holiday Pageant' at Open Eye Theatre Bruce Silcox

On Sunday afternoon, as audience members moved to squeeze into the last available seats in a packed Open Eye Figure Theatre, a gently smiling man with a shock of gray hair that seemed to defy gravity sat a few rows from the stage with his arm around his young granddaughter. Both were festively decked in red, the girl sporting a Santa hat.

The man was one of many attendees excited to welcome a new generation to a play that’s been a Twin Cities holiday tradition for longer than Holidazzle, longer than Santa at the Mall of America, longer than National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. He was Michael Sommers: writer, director, and designer of Open Eye’s Holiday Pageant.

The first Holiday Pageant was staged in 1985 in the living room of Sommers and Susan Haas, who welcomed Sunday’s crowd as Open Eye’s executive director. “Now we just have a bigger living room,” she said with a grin.

Not too much bigger, though, which is part of the show’s charm. Despite the impeccable craft and professional performances, the Holiday Pageant has never lost touch with a childlike wonder at the power of live theater to transport an audience—in this case, to a stable of some renown just over 2,000 years ago.

The family spirit is accentuated by the fact that two adult children of Sommers and Haas star in this year’s pageant. Noah Sommers Haas plays the hapless Joseph, dons Father Winter’s beard, and voices the drunken shepherd puppet Mak. Zoe Jethro Sommers Haas switches nimbly from Teufel (one of Lucifer’s minor minions) to Matin (an angel aspiring to earn her wings).

The premise of the pageant, playful but also a little dark, is that Lucifer (Pearce Bunting, looking like an aging glam rocker in dark eyeliner and flamboyant scarf) is stalking the land, looking for an opportunity to make malice as Joseph and Mary (a hilarious Liz Howls) journey to Bethlehem. By the end of the show, Christ has been born but we’re reminded that the divine child is destined for a bitter end.

The 80-minute pageant will enrapture the right kids, but when deciding whether to bring your own, be aware that it includes some brilliantly grotesque puppetry, incorporates rhyming diction that occasionally requires close attention, and assumes a working knowledge of how babies are made in the conventional manner.

It was, of course, a highly unconventional process that left Mary great with the Son of God. The play’s biggest gasps and giggles come when the Holy Spirit arrives to bless the virgin’s womb in a sequence you might call orgasmic, except that word isn’t quite adequate for an experience that’s so... well, divine.

With live music (Susan Haas herself plays three instruments) and a “celestial choir” of merry voices, Open Eye’s Holiday Pageant has returned from recent years’ hiatus with just as much warmth and weirdness as ever. Hallelujah!