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THEATER REVIEW 'CHRISTMAS IN THE MARKETPLACE' : Spirited Offering : The production in Solvang focuses on gypsies who offer their rendition of the Nativity story to passersby.

December 12, 1991|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A deceptively simple Nativity play, "Christmas in the Marketplace" provides a compelling evening of intimate spirituality thanks to capable staging by PCPA Theaterfest, which pulls off a minor miracle of its own in bringing lustre to a well-worn tale.

The familiar story is the birth of Jesus, acted out here by a band of gypsies who gather in a village marketplace. There they regale the passersby (ourselves) with a spirited, if somewhat rustic, rendition improvised from colorful fabric and craggy wooden posts.

And seemingly boundless enthusiasm. At the outset, our guide Joey (Frederic Barbour) accosts us with convincingly hearty good humor and explains his ragtag troupe's desire to present the Nativity story just "for the glory of it." "For the glory of God," quickly corrects the stern patriarch Melchior (Jonathan Gillard Daly), who claims to be a descendant of one of the three Wise Kings.

Undaunted, Joey continues in his earthy, exuberant fashion.

"I play Mary's husband-to-be, a very understanding man," he informs us with just enough of a wink to keep the spirit grounded in the flesh.

It's a moment of humanity typical of the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts cast, who have the ability to invest these gypsies (and the various archetypal roles they assume in their play) with remarkably well-defined personalities, despite only the sketchiest of dialogue to work from.

Where so many Nativity plays are content to let their icons do the work for them, finely nuanced performances make this one something special.

Both Daly and Barbour prove notably versatile in the multiple characters they portray. So does Teresa Thurman, though she's most memorable as a Roman noblewoman who responds with cold-hearted snobbishness to Mary and Joseph's search for housing in Bethlehem. (It is rendered with none-too-subtle overtones of our own society's treatment of the homeless.)

And Kitty Balay makes a credibly innocent Mary--sweetly devotional but, even by her own admission, a little out of touch with things.

Under James Edmondson's insightful direction, the characters' histories, motives and dreams remain refreshingly in focus throughout. The danger of an overly precious tone (ever-present in treating religious themes) is kept in check with light, playful cheer, complementing without undercutting the serious elements.

And there's an unwavering commitment to the simplicity of the play's original concept.

Henri Gheon's 1935 script was written for a small band of wandering French actors, not unlike the gypsies it depicts. Using Eric Crozier's translation from the early 1940s, Edmondson keeps the locale a clearly defined English village, and his cast maintains the lower class accents and sensibilities perfectly.

It's a rendition that takes us back to the roots of Christianity as a street religion, far removed from the pomp and pageantry of ritual embellishment.

And in paring away all the trappings, it reclaims for everyone the power of that faith and its piercing solace that every life has meaning.

* WHERE AND WHEN

Performed through Dec. 21 at the Solvang Backstage Theatre in Solvang. Evening performances are at 8 on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Tickets are $16. Call (800) 221-9469 for reservations or further information.

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