Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

The Holiday Pageant
Open Eye Figure Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of The Band's Visit and The Ever and After

Noah Sommer Haas,
Pearce Bunting, and Liz Howls

Photo by Bruce Silcox
The Holiday Pageant has returned to Open Eye Figure Theatre nineteen years after it was first presented on their stage, and thirty-four years after it was first conceived as a homemade living room holiday entertainment in the Haas-Sommers home. Susan Haas and Michael Sommers, co-founders and eternal godparents to Open Eye Figure Theatre, have brought back this delightful amalgamation of medieval miracle play and contemporary sketch comedy after a four-year hiatus, and it is as laden with sly humor, phantasmagoric stage and costume design, and good will as ever.

The show is clearly in the category of winter holiday entertainments, beginning with a jolly welcome from Father Winter himself, sporting a thigh-length beard of pure white yarn. It includes a highly comedic—but not disrespectful—telling of the immaculate conception, Joseph and Mary's journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem for tax enrollment, the birth of Mary's child in a manger, and the appearance of a glorious angel to the shepherds in the fields, beseeching them to find this newborn infant who is deserving of their praise. Yet the name Jesus and the words Christ or Christmas are never uttered. The story is presented in a manner that lends a universality to it, emphasizing simple events that are miraculous in their own right, not simply as backstory to the founding of a major world religion.

The nativity events described above come about because Lucifer, aka Satan, is frustrated about the sorry state of human existence. With humankind devolved into such debauched lives, lacking basic morality, Lucifer is denied the pleasure of bringing the virtuous down to his demonic level. He begs, through the angel Gabriel, for some strategy that will give humankind a spiritual uplift—and this babe born in the manger becomes the answer to Lucifer's demand. It remains to be seen whether those humans uplifted by the arrival of this heaven-sent child will succumb to Lucifer's temptation or be able to maintain the elevated state that has been granted to them.

In addition to human actors, the story is told with ingeniously designed and handled puppets, particularly endearing as the gamboling sheep. These, along with the vividly colorful sets, are designed by Michael Sommers, who also wrote and directs The Holiday Pageant. Victor Zupanc's musical compositions are another key element. Susan Haas serves as music director, with songs performed by a many-membered chorus—nineteen singers are listed in the program as members of The Celestial Choir, with varying numbers of them at each performance—and three musicians, who between them play five very distinctive instruments: accordion, trumpet, organ, trombone and violin. The music accentuates the narrative through the old-world sounds of chants and madrigals, along with sprightly carols to invoke gaiety. The entire package is presented in a spirit of humility, good cheer, and wonderment.

Visual elements are as important as the narrative, performance, and musical aspects of The Holiday Pageant. Michael Sommer's set designs use bold reds to evoke Lucifer's realm, and bright whites and metallic tones to depict the angels of heaven, all crafted like a storybook exploding with atmosphere and invention. Susan Haas' costumes similarly create brightly inventive, fanciful depictions of characters, bringing to mind the artistry of children's book writer-illustrator Tommie de Paolo.

This year's iteration of The Holiday Pageant is very special in that two of the offspring of its creators, who were children when those living room productions were devised, are now members of the cast. Noah Summers Haas is a warmly jovial Father Winter, a gamely obliging Joseph, and the shepherd Mak. Zoe Jethro Summers Haas especially shines as Teufel, the coy and cunning minion of Lucifer.

Pearce Bunting has appeared on stage as such true-life characters as Garrison Keillor and Lyndon Johnson. As Lucifer, a character of dubious authenticity, he brings a quality of discontented menace to the role. Liz Howls is quite hilarious as Mary, adjusting to greatly unexpected circumstances of becoming a mother, and Josh Castillo makes a striking angel Gabriel, stalwart upholder of virtue.

The magic of The Holiday Pageant lies in the coming together of its artists, who mix the high-mindedness of the nativity story with the reality of bedraggled human experience. The show is as funny as it is warmly affecting, sidestepping a bit into bawdiness and reaching upward toward thoughtful reflection. It is all that the holidays should be—jolly great fun and life-affirming contemplation, rolled into a lovely confection.

The Holiday Pageant runs through December 22, 2019, at Open Eye Figure Theatre, 506 East 24th Street, Minneapolis MN. Tickets are $26.00 general admission, $18.00 for students, $12.00 for children 12 and under. Remaining ticket availability is very limited. For tickets and information, visit or call 612-874-6338.

Written, Directed and Designed by: Michael Sommers; Composer: Victor Zupanc; Light Design: Bill Healy; Costume Design and Music Director: Susan Haas; Technical Director: Brandon Sisneroz; Associate Costume Designer: Andrea Gross; Stage Manager: Brian Hirt; Swing Stage Manager: Kenji Shoemaker; Producer: Joel Sass.

Cast: Tess Bakken-Ziring (Shepard boy), Pearce Bunting (Lucifer), Josh Castillo (Gabriel), Ty Chapman (puppeteer), Noah Sommers Haas (Father Winter/Joseph/Shepherd Mak), Zoe Jethro Sommers Haas (Teufel/Matin), Liz Howls (Mary/Shepard Tud), Ayotzinemi Limón-Millard (Shepard boy). Musicians: Susan Haas (accordion, trombone, organ). Joseph Castillo (trumpet), Ellie Fregni (violin).