On a learning trip to Mexico several years back, Rhodes theater professor David Jilg was disabled by a common gastrointestinal disorder.
"I had 'the revenge,' and it was bad," he says. "You can write that however you want to write it."
Exiled in his hotel room, Jilg picked up a book of Pastorela -- traditional Spanish-American Christmas plays. In spite of his condition, he was particularly charmed by La Caja Misteriosa (The Mysterious Box), which tells the biblical story of the nativity while reimagining the Greek myth of Pandora. In this case, Satan, hoping to prevent any pilgrims from making it to Bethlehem, has changed all the road signs, thrown up a dark mist, and imprisoned the "spirit of light" in a box, which he leaves in the charge of a curious, less-than-competent devil-in-training.
For the past three years, Jilg and a cast of bilingual students have performed this Spanish-language play in churches with large Hispanic communities. This year, they're staging the play at the McCoy Theatre on the Rhodes College campus and inviting the Spanish-speaking community to come to their free performances.
The church and the stage have a complicated history. Roman theaters weren't only temples to the god of wine and debauchery. They were places where the dour Christ-followers were regularly mocked for their dourness and their Christ-following. As Christianity spread, so did a healthy mistrust of secular entertainments, and as the church costumed itself more elaborately and ritual passed into pageantry, drama was deemed unclean and discouraged until medieval priests discovered it could be a valuable tool for teaching scripture to the illiterate masses.
The early "miracle plays" were parochial affairs performed in Latin and reasonably dull, but when priests were forbidden to take part in dramatic productions and the sacred pageants became a secular tradition, little profanities crept in and humanized the genre. Audiences were treated to comical devils who danced and prodded sinners with their forks and avenging angels who knew the meaning of the word smite. The plays were quickly translated into native languages, and clownish stock characters from street-theater traditions began to appear. As the form expanded, literal interpretation of the Gospels were replaced by farcical, extra-biblical plots that kept the audience laughing while they learned about the wages of sin and the rewards of faith.
The Spanish-American tradition of Pastorela descends from European "shepherds plays," which retell the Christmas story from the perspective of simple country people who are content tending their sheep and feeding their appetites until an angel announces the Messiah's birth, and their comical pilgrimage to Bethlehem begins. From the start of their journey, the shepherds are set upon by devils out to thwart prophecy by keeping the absurd rustics from bringing their trivial, generally foolish gifts to the newborn king of kings.
"It's always the same basic story," Jilg says of the Pastorela. "It's always about shepherds going to Bethlehem. There are always characters like [the shepherd] Bato, who is always hungry. There is always a devil like Satan. But what happens to the shepherds on their way to Bethlehem is different in every play.
"There's another Pastorela I'd love to do, but we want to be able to do these shows for churches, and I don't think it would be appropriate," Jilg says, explaining that some of the bawdier plays wouldn't be entirely out of place at a burlesque show.
After the Pastorela tradition passed from Spanish-born missionaries into the hands of conquered native Mexicans, the tone changed, with some of the religious plays taking on a distinctly political tone.
"It wasn't uncommon to have Satan dressed as a Spanish don and for him to speak with a Castilian accent," Jilg says. "The devils would be Spanish, and the shepherds would always be played like good Mexican peasants."
Much of the slapstick comedy in Pastorale is based on anachronism, but according to Jilg, the form's temporal distortions aren't just for laughs. "These stories aren't about shepherds searching for Bethlehem 2,000 years ago. It's about how we're always searching for Bethlehem, and sometimes we get lost. And there are characters like 'the poor devils' who are souls in pain but they can live again after they've found the light."