'Butterfingers Angel': Oh, Holy Cow
By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, Dec. 10, 2008
The late William Gibson, the Tony-winning playwright of "The Miracle Worker," served up a couple of kinds of crazy in his 1975 take on the Nativity story: Mary's a loud brat, the angel is all thumbs, and Herod is a power-mad whack job.
Even the full title of the show, now getting an odd split-personality production at Columbia's Rep Stage, is a little out of its mind. Take a deep breath: It's called "The Butterfingers Angel, Mary & Joseph, Herod the Nut, & the Slaughter of 12 Hit Carols in a Pear Tree." And the plum role is the small part of the tree.
Gibson's notion was to make this a mock-amateurish pageant, so there is a certain amount of complaining about roles as the inept young angel consults his binder. The resistant attitude carries into the main plot, which finds Mary unwilling to go along with God's divine but unconventional plan.
She shrinks from the somewhat older Joseph, and the kitschy domestic caterwauling is a little tough to take. The braying high jinks feel dreadfully dated, making it hard to fathom why the play was so rapturously received both here and in New York.
Things look up, though, when a sinister figure known as the Man in Gray negotiates a peculiar deal with the Tree. Timothy Andrés Pabon plays this devilish figure with suave command, while a charmingly egocentric Dawn Ursula makes way more than you'd guess was possible of the role of the petulant Tree.
Pabon doubles as the loony Herod, who spews crackpot patter and bangs the drums a bit. This character is the fragile link between the play's light and dark sides: On the one hand, you have a cutesy donkey with Mary and Joseph played by a costumed actor on all fours; on the other, you have the rather alarming Slaughter of the Innocents. The move from farce to drama is like being on a thin rope bridge when the last cord snaps: You can only hang on as you slam into the finish.
Carols? They've got a few, generally strummed folk-style on guitars. One of the guitarists is the versatile Dan Manning, whose avuncular Joseph channels the grateful spirit of the play.
But director Lee Mikeska Gardner's production (in Rep's freshly reopened, auditorium-style Smith Theatre) never feels more certain than when the play is at its darkest. The dramatic passages are actually quite good, right down to an unexpected image of sacrifice near the climax. Slipperier by far are Gibson's lightness and gentle humanity -- the butterfingers bits.
The Butterfingers Angel, Mary & Joseph, Herod the Nut, & the Slaughter of 12 Hit Carols in a Pear Tree, by William Gibson. Directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner. Set, Bob Marietta; lighting, Harold Burgess; costumes, Emily Mason. With Lauren Williams, Travis Hudson, Greg Anderson, Jamie Driskill, Rickie Peete, Anne Nottage, Menchu Esteban, Natalie Blank, KeiLyn Durrel Jones, Michael Shelton, Sydney K. Banks, Rachel Olivia Condliffe, Brianna Dregier, Alistair Faghani, Jasmine Jefferson, Connor McCully. About 2 hours 15 minutes.