Appleseed’s Butterfingers Angel offers a comic take on the Nativity
This is what she does for love. Thirtysix years ago director Sharee Lemos was a very, very young assistant director on The Butterfingers Angel, a signal event in Syracuse theater history. One of America’s then-leading playwrights, William Gibson (The Miracle Worker, Two for the Seesaw), agreed to allow the world premiere of his retelling of the Nativity story to appear at the brand-new Syracuse Stage. Gibson did not think it was commercial and intended it only for a church sanctuary. Arthur Storch directed it in that smallish space now named for him, and ticket demand was overwhelming.
Shortly after, the show was revived around the corner in the Regent Theatre, the unremodeled hulk that became the Archbold. Syracuse Stage brought it back again in 1994. And Lemos has revived it twice, eight years ago for Theater ’90 and now for Appleseed Productions, which holds court at the Atonement Lutheran Church, 116 W. Glen Ave. She really loves this show.
To live in this society, regardless of creed or lack of it, is to know the Nativity story, and Gibson expects that of us going in. That story begins when an Angel of the Lord announces to the Virgin Mary that she is with child, a central tenet of Christian belief and a craw-stickler for rationalists to swallow. The insecure, clumsy Angel (Maxwel Anderson) who delivers this message to a reluctant Mary (“Hey. There are a lot of other Marys in his neighborhood”) is never named, but he is the “Butterfingers” of the title. Well, the full title is jaw-breaking: The Butterfingers Angel, Mary and Joseph, Herod the Nut, and the Slaughter of 12 Hit Carols in a Pear Tree.
The absurdist title is your first signal that this is not the usual pious version of the Nativity as seen in church pageants but a contemporized recreation. In 1974 the oftenabused term “post-modern” had just arrived, and with some adjustments it would fit here. Biblical women washing their clothes in the stream use detergents purchased at Wegmans or Tops, for example. When the Three Wise
Men come in from the East they make wrong turns trying to get from Route 11 to 57.
When Syracuse Stage revived the show in 1994, some clueless buffoon wrote a rant to the Syracuse daily paper, complaining that Butterfingers was an insult to Christianity. That person was not paying attention. Gibson knew, as Lemos understands, that we live at a time when old-fashioned piety has declined, many churches have closed and, moving on in time, strident atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris have produced bestselling books. There are new ways to tell old stories.
In effect Gibson wrote Butterfingers Angel in short scenes with a lot of seeming improv, so that any production—professional or not—might appear amateur. Even premiering at Syracuse Stage, it feels like a gift to community theater, with a large cast, doubling roles and quite a few bits for child actors. That the Angel of the Lord is a “butterfingers,” or bungler, suggests a theological perspective. Gibson sounds like a mainstream Protestant, possibly an Episcopalian or a Congregationalist. His is not the self-assured absolutism of the fundamentalist. His Angel often has a hard time getting the job done, and the ways of his Lord are hard to scrutinize.
At the same time, Butterfingers is a product of its time, much influenced by the absurdism of the 1960s, and it did not point the way to the future. The twee expressionism of having a beautiful young woman (Kate Fahey), who arrives in a fur coat, play the Tree with the pears hanging from it, feels like the dramaturgy of The Fantasticks. The reverence-withhumor tone has a first cousin in Neil Simon’s God’s Favorite, also first produced in 1974. Neither has fared well with the public at large. God’s Favorite has unjustly become one of Simon’s less-often produced works, only once in Syracuse in the last 25 years, and Butterfingers Angel did not become the Christmas tradition it might have. It really is a Syracuse thing.
Lemos’ commitment to Butterfingers Angel has led her to some strong casting choices.
In the absolutely necessary title role Maxwel Anderson brings a youthful gentleness linked with a gentle hesitation. He might be called “Gabriel” some of the time, but Anderson’s Angel petitions and pleads rather than commands. Like a good soft-sell salesman, however, the Angel always has his eye on the goal.
Self-described as a “brat,” Lynn Barbato’s Virgin Mary is a reversal of all those plaster statue Marys and of Mariolotry in general. This means Gibson is not a Roman Catholic, unless he’s a very offbeat one. Barbato’s Mary could share company with Kate in The Taming of the Shrew and anticipates the tough-talking Virgin Mary played by Sinead O’Connor in director Neil Jordan’s 1997 movie The Butcher Boy. As Mary is initially a doubter, as incredulous of the virgin conception as any skeptic, Barbato is also responsible for the play’s changing tone, beginning with submission to Divine plan and astonishment at the miracle coming forth from her body.
Lemos’ other must-have player is Joe Pierce in two roles, as the ambiguous but most sinister Man In Grey and later in a bravura piece as King Herod. It’s good to remember that there is no devil in the Four Gospels of the New Testament, only the Tempter, thought to be the same personality. Pierce’s Man sometimes appears with a clerical dog collar, just to keep us guessing. Later when the Man in Grey turns into a long-haired huckster, Lemos avoids the possible hint of anti-Semitism, another controversial point in the 1994 production. Absolutely spectacular is Pierce’s drumming Herod, much more threatening than the “Nut” promised in the title. Here he merges with Caligula and some nameless rock musician who has sympathy for the devil.
Other roles are not always rewarding. Hapless Joseph (Phil Brady) is a rejected middleaged suitor until Mary finds herself in need of a consort for her anticipated motherhood. He has a hard time sticking with the story and laments his diminished role in Yiddish slang. David Burrows, Keith Arlington and Steve Rowlands triple up on roles, as soldiers, wise kings from the east, and most amusingly as Mary’s loutish brothers. They’re not in the Gospels, of course, and Gibson said he stuck them in to remind us what life would be like without grace. Dorothy Lennon and Kathy Egloff also do multiple duty, most fetchingly as bare-armed cuties at Herod’s palace. Four children, Lucy DiGenova, Ethan Howse, Tyler Christiansen and Taylor Burrows, contribute wit and color in multiple roles.
William Gibson wanted to keep The Butterfingers Angel simple, and he’d probably approve of a company using a church basement, where architect Navroz Dabu designed the simple set with manger and guiding star. Director Lemos, a previous winner of the Syracuse New Times Syracuse Area Live Theater (SALT) award, brings an authoritative hand to this obvious labor of love. With that think of the show as Lemos’ and Appleseed’s Christmas card to the community.
This production runs through Dec. 18. See Times Table for information.