Each new adaptation of A Christmas Carol or Wonderful Life carries the burden of creating something fresh, bold, innovative and memorable. Then, there are the holiday plays that need no prompting to be different. Among these is William Gibson’s 1975 acid flashback Christmas pageant The Butterfingers Angel, Mary & Joseph, Herod the Nut, & the Slaughter of 12 Hit Carols in a Pear Tree. Gibson, better known for The Miracle Worker and Golda’s Balcony, takes this opportunity to be irreverent, tongue-in-cheek and, at times, perfectly somber. Butterfingers, the script, comes off as an attempt to be ramshackle and satirical, poking fun at not only Christmas mores, but community theater in general. It’s not his best work, rarely seeing the stage and glossed over in biographies, but beloved of companies and schools that want something with that little extra edge. 2nd Story Theatre produced it more than a decade ago, and director Vince Petronio (who portrayed the lead character of Joseph at the time) brings his vision to The Players at Barker Playhouse through December 9.
Butterfingers plays like a pageant, with a boy angel (Tylar Jahumpa in a sympathetically adolescent performance) doing what he can to move the story along and get his job done – that job being to shepherd the irascible teenage Mary to a safe delivery of the miracle child of God. His all-too-human frailties (including the inability to play his angelic trumpet) underscore the entire attitude of the play, namely, we’re getting the story of Bethlehem and the Virgin Birth, but be patient, as real life and some dad jokes are going to get into the way – “bridle suite,” anyone?
As Mary, Phoebe Brown carries her share of the script with attitude and the detachment that only an actual teenager can deliver. The part, as written, is fairly whiny, but Brown manages to keep her resistance to the Angel’s plans from becoming strident or overbearing. Her matter-of-fact delivery is also a perfect foil for Roger Lemelin’s Joseph, who is delightfully understated in his frustration with his now-hot, now-cold partner. At first, he’s deemed too old, now he’s ideal as Mary rotates from aloof disdain to whitewashing the walls in Joseph’s bachelor pad. It is up to Jahumpa, Brown and Lemelin to keep a straight face as Butterfingers bounces around from cheesy Christmas pageant (complete with carols that sometimes play fast and loose with the lyrics), singing trees that may or may not consort with Satan and talking donkeys (Simone Pellegrino’s portrayal here is utterly enchanting).
The rest of the cast is decidedly played for laughs, especially the wonderfully utilitarian duo of Samantha Gaus and Katie Preston who move from Galilee washerwomen, to royal consorts to barnyard witnesses at the virgin birth (never has a cow and a sheep managed to steal more focus than these two). The bumbling trio of Stephen Hug, Mark Lima (who also handles all of the musical direction) and Megan Ruggerio draw laughs, particularly as three of Mary’s barbaric brothers. Later on, as the directionally challenged Wise Men, their roles fall more into the meta-awareness of the story itself (how could three kings simply up and leave their thrones on a holy road trip without courting disaster back home?). Kevin Thibault’s Herod is reminiscent of the Elvis Pharaoh from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, seemingly more concerned with his bongo playing than any messianic upheavals. David Adams Murphy’s Courier has one of the funniest lines in the script, but it could easily get buried among a stream of one-liners that make up the bulk of Butterfingers.
Dan Clement’s always satisfying scenic design is simple, but effective, utilizing Barker’s bare stone wall upstage, augmented by a simple star. Side panels invoke stained-glass windows, with scenic vignettes that come across as purposefully amateurish, and no less striking for that fact. Two gallows-like structures come together for the inevitable barn in a clever effect that most likely took far longer to build than the scene required. Jillian Eddy’s costuming is remarkable, from the color palettes of the robes to the animal costuming and the aforementioned tree (played by Andrea Hellman). Ron Allen’s lighting design is sparse, but clever, pinpointing green for Hellman’s scenes with careful precision among the general wash of the remainder of the stage.
Butterfingers ends on a note far more serious than the entirety of the pageant foretells. The effect is powerful, yet jarring, perhaps what Gibson was aiming for all along. The tale of the Nativity is fraught with peril and the supernatural and the notion of exploring what the actual people may have gone through in a realistic telling is certainly refreshing, if not satisfying. What would Joseph have thought? What if Mary was actually a total handful, sneering her way through her sense of biblical duty? What if cows could talk and angels had stomach issues? These are not important questions, but they are amusing enough, especially as an antidote to Tiny Tim and George Bailey. Kudos to Barker Playhouse for providing the alternative.
The Players at The Barker Playhouse, 400 Benefit St, PVD present The Butterfingers Angel… through Dec 9. All performances are currently sold out, but contact email@example.com or call 401-273-0590 to be put on a wait list for tickets.