By Jenny Neyman
And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and said unto them —
“Shazam! Out of the black night, with horrible vengeance, the mighty Marvo!”
At least, that’s how it goes when Gladys Herdman plays the angel in the annual church Christmas pageant. She’s the youngest of the herd of six Herdman kids. Altogether, the brood is more unruly, ill-mannered and wild than anything that would eat out of a manger.
“They’re basically raising themselves, they run amok, they’re hoodlums, they smoke and they curse and they bully the other kids. They’re really terrible children,” said Kate Schwarzer, who’s directing “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” at Triumvirate Theatre this weekend.
In the show, the pageant is a staple church tradition of the Christmas season, but the usual director is out with a broken leg, leaving eager but inexperienced Grace Bradley, played by AnnMarie Rudstrom, to take the helm. Her enthusiasm, patience and optimism know no bounds, until the Herdman kids decide to participate and bully their way into the lead roles.
“So, Imogene has volunteered to be Mary — I’ll just write that down. Now, what other names can I put on my list? Janet? Roberta? Alice, don’t you want to volunteer?” Bradley says, as other kids are too intimidated by the Herdmans to speak up.
Gladys, the youngest Herdman, played by Charli Byrd, is convinced the Angel of the Lord is a superhero, and regularly sends rehearsals off track with her dramatic outbursts.
“I know a name! I’d call it, ‘Revenge and Bethlehem!’” she shouts.
The rest of the Herdmans are disruptive in their own ways, being all manner of loud inappropriate, and intimidating the other kids. Imogene, the oldest, played by Julianna Hamilton, takes the cake.
“She’s angry all the time during most of the show because she’s the oldest, she’s stuck with all of her siblings, she’s the most responsible one, but she’s got a lot of pent-up anger because of it,” Schwarzer said.
Despite Bradley’s attempts to hold the show together, it dissolves into chaos when a well-meaning church lady calls the fire department after smelling Imogene’s cigar smoke in the bathroom.
But just like the Christmas story is one of faith and perseverance, so, too is Bradley’s dedication to the annual Christmas pageant.
“Maybe it’s best to cancel the pageant,” the church pastor suggests. “Everyone is saying it’s going to be a … .”
“A disaster? Well, they’re wrong,” Bradley declares. “This is going to be the best Christmas pageant we’ve ever had!”
The miracle in this story is that it’s the smoking, cursing, bullying Imogene who turns it all around.
“She sort of gets struck by the meaning of the Christmas story and it really impacts her in a way that she didn’t expect, and it turns out to be a really beautiful moment in the end,” Schwarzer said.
The show has been a holiday favorite of Schwarzer’s.
“It’s one of those stories that always stuck out for me. It’s got some really funny moments and some heartfelt moments,” she said.
Even though, with a big cast of 26 kids and eight adults, Schwarzer has at times empathized with Bradley.
“I feel like it’s a metaphor for the rehearsal process that we’re going through with the exception that all the kids in the show are pretty well behaved, they all listen to direction pretty well. I don’t really have actual Herdmans in my actual cast,” she said.
She’s sure that the production, just like the church Christmas pageant, will turn out for the best.
The show is at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, with a matinee at 2 p.m. Saturday. Advance tickets are available online www.triumviratetheatre.org.