Arts & Theater

Modern take on traditional ‘Pastorela’ finds room at the Crest

The bilingual musical “La Pastorela de Sactown” features, from left, Shannon Van Der Mersch, Carlos Kandia and Rueben Rivera, shown during a rehearsal earlier this month.
The bilingual musical “La Pastorela de Sactown” features, from left, Shannon Van Der Mersch, Carlos Kandia and Rueben Rivera, shown during a rehearsal earlier this month. Vida en el Valle

Long, long before Frosty the Snowman, Charlie Brown or even Santa Claus, Spanish friars brought the Christmas special to the New World, as a way to teach their religion. It was called “La Pastorela” and told of the journey of Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem, where their son, Jesus, was born.

Bringing the ancient tale a modern twist, “La Pastorela de Sactown” will be performed at the Crest Theatre on Saturday, Dec. 19.

Director Dena Martinez says the play is an hour and a half of fun, bringing together professional actors, community players and the audience, and people of all ages. The show is bilingual, in Spanish and English. “And there’s lots of dancing and music – Victor Contreras and Nagual are the house band,” Martinez says. The play’s music and lyrics are by Eduardo Robledo.

As for the plot, “La Pastorela de Sactown” follows the traditional storyline, Martinez says. “We’ve got the shepherds, Mary and Joseph, and the characters who try to trick them so they don’t find shelter. But we’re giving the story a local, political bent: comparing Mary and Joseph’s search for shelter to immigration policy.”

Even if you can’t attend the show, you can join a pre-show procession that will start at 7:30 in front of Mayahuel Restaurant, 1200 K St., to sing Christmas carols and verses from the traditional Posada (verses in Spanish and English can be found at and continue to the Crest before the show begins.

La Posada is wildly popular in Mexico and the Southwestern United States – some communities celebrate it for nine days before Christmas, with houses and buildings lit up with hundreds of luminarias – paper bags weighted with sand and containing slow-burning candles.

In the vein of commedia dell’arte, the three shepherds in “La Pastorela de Sactown” come from disparate walks of life: a young state senator, an office worker who loves to shop and a landlord so determined not to lose his culture that he refuses to speak English – “kind of the polar opposite of the senator,” Martinez says. “The three must repent their sins and face their moral dilemmas, and work together to help the Mary and Joseph characters find shelter.”

Writer Joan Holden says it was “a great joy, as an outsider to the culture and religion, to work on this folk story. When else do you get to write for Lucifer and St. Michael (the Archangel)?”

“Marie Acosta (executive director of the Latino Center of Art and Culture since 2008) wanted the story updated. One of the updates is that the ‘shepherds’ are stuck taking the light rail. But Luzbel, Lucifer, is not updated; he is eternal.”

Holden, who spent three decades writing for the San Francisco Mime Troupe, says her interest in La Pastorela was piqued while watching a traditional version performed at Mission San Juan Bautista. In writing “La Pastorela de Sactown,” she also brought in her memories of grade-school Christmas pageants. “It’s my earliest theatrical memory, really,” she says.

Although the situation for refugees and immigrants is a serious one, “La Pastorela de Sactown” keeps the tone light and hopeful. As the final verse in the Posada goes: Tonight is for joy/ for pleasure and rejoicing/ for tonight we will give lodging/ to the Mother of God the Son.

La Pastorela de Sactown

What: Contemporary take on traditional story of Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem

When: Saturday, Dec. 19; pre-show caroling and Posada verses at 7:30 p.m., show at 8 p.m.

Where: Crest Theatre, 1013 K St., Sacramento

Cost: $5-$15

Information: 916-476-3356;,