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Season's bleatings 

& & by Michael Bowen & & & &

Jesus may have said, 'Suffer little children... to come unto me,'" says the exasperated organizer of the production promised in the title of the Valley Rep's Christmas offering, "but He wasn't thinking of the Herdmans." She's referring to the six little white-trash monsters who disrupt and bedevil most attempts at respectability during the rehearsals-within-a-play. Sadly, however, far from being the best Christmas pageant ever, this one doesn't even attain mediocrity.

The problems begin with Barbara Robinson's script. The Best Little Chirstmas Pageant Ever traces the difficulties an unassuming housewife has when she's charged with organizing a bunch of unruly kids into a presentable church Christmas pageant. Robinson wants to write a redemption story: hard-bitten brats achieve reformation by participating in the local church event, finding generosity and compassion along the way. But the transformation isn't convincing. One minute, the Herdman delinquents are terrorizing their fellow performers, and in the next, they've suddenly mellowed into sensitive children who weep over the plight of Baby Jesus and offer him a gift of their own Christmas ham.

It's a holiday play that tries to be heart-warming. But we can't escape into a world of pleasing fantasies if the creaking of the stage machinery can always be heard.

Most of the actors, moreover, are reciting the words, not acting. Lines should overlap, with speakers coming in on top of one another. This is especially true for the more chaotic of the rehearsal scenes, with all their screaming and roughhousing. Over-eager, hyper-energetic kids don't politely wait for conversational partners to finish what they're saying; they just plow right ahead, yelling for attention.

Later in the evening, after witnessing rehearsals in which these wacky kids do and say the darnedest things, we see the pageant itself. There's a moment toward the end of the play-within-a-play when the two tiniest girls (Chandler and Hunter Watson), dressed as little cherubs, come whirling out, doing cute little solo dances to usher in the Holy Family. These little tykes have been told to go out there and twirl like ballerinas a bit before the adults pull them into the background. The audience chuckles, because for once we're seeing children act in natural, unstaged ways. The girls don't realize how cute they are, so naturally they achieve cuteness. Nearly all the other child-actors in this production, trying really hard to really act, don't.

It's a moment that represents what goes wrong in VRT's current production, which doesn't live up to its title. The show is properly aimed at other children, who won't notice the technical and thespian glitches, and may perhaps be inspired to attend or get involved in other theatrical productions. And that's great. (The show, catering to kids, starts at 7 pm and ends by 8.) But the night I attended, scarcely any of the audience was under the age of 14. Maybe opening night drew in all the friends and the neighbors, along with their children. More kids need to attend, if only to see both the achievements of their peers and the difficulties they face.

For a low-budget production, Mary-Jane Bennett provided some nice emphases with her costumes. In the final version of the pageant, the better-behaved rich kids had more elaborate angel costumes, complete with gold sequins and more elaborate wings, while the down-at-the-heels Herdmans had to make do with simple bedsheets and plain white cardboard wings. It seems just right for the reluctant husband (Steve Hirsch) of the harried pageant organizer to appear in his bathrobe, echoing the Middle Eastern wear of the good-boy shepherds. In their set, co-director Jodine Watson and Bruce Arnold achieved a nice backlit effect for the church's only stained-glass window.

Watson and Michelle Geller-Reynolds have co-directed their cast of seven adults and 17 children into a few amusing moments. Told to break a leg, the more rambunctious boys in the cast jump into a dogpile, trying to do so literally. The Herdman clan wants to rewrite the Nativity story by bringing in Herod and turning it into a slasher movie. The eldest Herdman, inquiring at the church door about the Christmas story and informed that "it's about Jesus," responds with, "Well, everything around here is."

Among the children, there were some effective performances. Brandon Hollen is convincing as the good little brother who gets pushed around by playground bullies. Kari Evans is effective both as the wild-haired leader of the Herdman hooligans and as the Mother of God her character performs within the pageant. It's too bad that the playwright has given her two extended moments of crying over the infant that comes out of nowhere.

Shows like this are intended to rid us of our customary Scrooge tendencies and fill us instead with the spirit of the Cratchits' Yuletide generosity. Instead of spreading the warmth of Christmas cheer, however, this Christmas Pageant makes us experience the performers' flop sweat.

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