“Tree” is the holiday offering of Stray Dog Theatre from its home in the Tower Grove Abbey. As related in Director Gary Bell's program notes, back in 1975, the already notable Gibson’s church asked for a Christmas play, and he complied with his version of the Nativity, from Annunciation to Mary and Joseph fleeing into Egypt. It obviously did well enough that established theatre companies started performing it as well.
Stray Dog’s pleasant rendition of the two-hour (plus one 15-minute intermission) play is nicely cast, the bare-bones set is minimal but effective, actors sport some groovy 1960’s-type threads for costume, and it has the nice touch of a single acoustic guitar player (Adam Rugo) sweetly supporting many of the songs (some Christmas traditional, some not so much) sung by the cast. However, I feel these many pluses may have been let down by the "author tried too hard to be clever" script, which rambled frequently from the traditional story, was only occasionally humorous or witty (from the title I expected a laugh riot), included a slew of nontraditional Nativity characters (a talking tree in a mink stole, Mary’s grunting Neanderthal brothers, a sinister Lucifer dressed in gray, the “there’s no room” Innkeeper’s daughter), and was so padded as to be about a half hour too long.
In "Tree," a naïve and bewildered Mary (effective as always Colleen M. Backer) — who distains both marriage and childbearing — is told by a nebbishy Angel Gabriel (Joseph Corey Henke) that she’s God’s chosen to bear His Son. After a number of disbelieving, “What? Why me? I've got better things to do!” moments she eventually comes to an uneasy acceptance of the pregnancy and of an eventual relationship with local businessman Joseph (Stephen Peirick), whom she thinks is too old for her. Joseph, who has desired Mary for many years, is more than happy to marry her despite the child not being his and although he doesn't think much of that "immaculate conception" explanation. Thanks to the census decree, they set out with a patient donkey (Kevin Connelly) to Bethlehem. Three direction-challenged Oriental Kings who would do Larry, Moe, and Curly proud (Mitch Eagles, Jan Niehoff, Andrew S. Kuhlman), also set out unwittingly for the same destination. In Bethlehem, Mary and company are shown to the stable for accommodations, and, after a bit of stable cleanup, Mary announces that in precisely five minutes she will give birth. She does. The tale then takes a rather dark turn as Herod (John Reidy), frightened of tales of a newborn King of the Jews, slaughters all young male children in and around Bethlehem. Mary and Joseph had, by then, escaped into Egypt.
Additional cast members (Alyssa Ward, Ashley D. Alcamo, Sarajane Alverson, Grace Clark, Ellie Lore) undertake a variety of roles as supporting characters.
Technical support is courtesy of Alexandra Scibetta Quigley (Costumes), Tyler Duenow (Lighting), Justin Been (Stage Manager), Jay V. Hall (Production Manager), Adam Rugo (Music Director), and Matthew Stuckey (Scenic Artist).
If you're looking to take tradition in a somewhat non-traditional direction this holiday season, try Stray Dog's, "The Butterfingers Angel, Mary & Joseph, Herod the Nut and the Slaughter of 12 Hit Carols in a Pear Tree." For more information access their website at straydogtheatre.org.