The Nativity Variations at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater

The Nativity Variations is a World Premiere Production for the Milwaukee Rep. And how exactly did that come about? Well as Mark Clements explains in the program guide, it went something like this:

Sometimes a story falls into your lap that is so good it just needs to be dramatized on stage. That’s what happened when I read an online article by playwright Catherine Trieschmann about how she felt she had a “moral obligation” to take over writing and directing her church’s Nativity play, that her own children were involved in, after experiencing one too many cringe-worthy Christmas pageants….


Well, I didn’t know quite what to expect. A comedy of errors? A straight up farce? A compilation of silly vignettes? Well, not exactly…and yes that too! So Catherine Trieschmann has left quite a bundle of emotions and plots and subplots and personalities and theater genres and somehow director Shelley Butler nailed it. And I don’t think that she could have assembled a better cast to help her pull this off!

So what should you expect to see? Something between a farce and a comedy but with a very serious underlying sense of drama…on more than one level. You will meet an ensemble of very real people, some with prior relationships, and some entirely new on the scene…some with experience in theater…and some there on a lark while also trying to distract themselves from real life…although you will find that real life keeps intruding…sometimes comically, sometimes tragically, but finally with a satisfying denouement. You will see and feel it all, but I am not going to go into greater detail and spoil it.

It’s hard to determine who is the lead character here…Trieschmann has written the cast as an ensemble…just like what you’d expect from a real theater cast. So I didn’t sense a star or a lead character.

Hank, Jules, Peggy. Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

But the driving force in this regional group, the Prairie Community Players, is, as I guess it should be, their director, Jules. She is commissioned by Father Juan to present a seasonal nativity play at his church, St. Ignatious Episcopal Church. Now Jules is a playwright as well as director, and a very serious (emphasis on serious) one at that. So under the watchful eye of Father Juan, who knows a little bit more about theater than you would expect, Jules produces a number of versions of a Nativity play. Now these aren’t iterations of a play but dramatically/drastically different plays entirely, that work the extremes and edges of theater…until we come to the final version that actually expresses the true spirit of the season…and the community. But I was rather taken with Jules…she has a sense of art and theater and although a vocal (at least) disbeliever, takes on a task that may be outside her comfort level. And actress Sami Ma brings her to life and feels her feels and just brings out the determination and assured-ness written into the character.

Mateo, Karl. Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

One might make an argument that Father Juan is the driving force here. He confidently hired Jules to present the Nativity play at his church, knowing full well her beliefs and theater tendencies. I’ll let you figure out why. And in little one on one vignettes interspersed as a play within the play within the play, he guides and mentors Jules on a better direction or vision for her plays. As I said earlier, he certainly understands the history of the theater, and carefully persuades Jules to make a number of major changes in her plays. Father Juan is played to perfection by Ryan Alvarado who also plays PCP member Mateo. And it took me a while to realize that…as Alvarado cleanly separated the two distinct roles here.

Mateo, Hank. Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

And the other members of the Prairie Community Players? Mateo played by Ryan Alvarado is a phy ed teacher and long standing member of the troop. Vanessa played by Sadieh Rifai, also a long standing member and college admissions assistant. Peggy and Hank, a retired couple and newbies to acting, although theater goers, are played by Ann Arvia and Adam LeFevre. They are retired although Hank is looking for a new job, not being particularly successful. Devon as played by Eva Nimmer is the go to/gopher/tech maven/and glue for the company and the spiritual support that allows Jules to go off to the edges. AND Chike Johnson as Karl, a children’s librarian and puppeteer, who is Jules nemesis at times, conscience at others, and someone with a serious interest in theater and a desire to be a ‘Jules’. Johnson is an actor that we need to see again on the Rep stage, he has the dramatic voice and stage presence that can only be appreciated as you experience it. I can imagine him in any number of classical settings and obviously he has some comedic chops as well!

Hank. Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

This delightful ensemble is hard put upon by Jules as she rolls out play after play as the time for rehearsal and development evaporates. Sometimes they fly into the piece or their character, sometimes a bit more begrudgingly, and sometimes with a fair amount of legitimate pushback. It is interesting to watch their characters develop and the camaraderie unfold as they work through the different plays, different roles, and the real time personal interactions involved in putting on a play in a small town church setting. Watch and listen very carefully because there is a lot more going on here than you might imagine.

Karl (standing), Hank. Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. Photo by Michael Brosilow. And I need Karl’s angel costume to distribute Halloween candy next year!

And finally we come to the final Nativity variation. Like any good drama or even mystery play, the various threads introduced earlier are finally woven into the play as it is presented at the church and woven into a fabric of community and humanity. Bravo to Catherine Trieschmann, Shelley Butler, the cast and crew, and Mark Clements for seeing a drama (and after all it is a drama) in a little article.

Hank, Karl, Peggy. Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

But yes, please play attention. The first act may seem like a cascade of absurdities but the plot threads are laid out here, the characters develop individually and as a group. and you won’t understand the depth of the hilarity that ensues in the second act without some of that experience.

And don’t think this is simply a play about putting on a seasonal play or the foibles of regional theater. There are a lot of ideas expressed in the text and dialogue that Jules writes, the real life conversations amongst the cast members, and particularly some of the topics expressed in the Jules and Father Juan talks that present ideas and postures very very relevant to contemporary culture and society. And these thought threads too, come to a sort of resolution in the final scene.

And for the serious theater goer, there is far more here than meets the eye or ears. Particularly in the conversations between Jules and Father Juan, but in the instructions to the cast from Jules, the various plays that she presents, and just in the settings and language she writes into her plays. There are dozens of references and allusions to other plays, other playwrights, other performances, and other stars. You can find most of them in the Play Guide linked below.

Mateo, Peggy, Karl, Jules. Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Whooops, I forgot to say that there are puppets. There are puppets! Sesame Street is specifically mentioned and some attempt was made to infer their magic…but Sesame Street isn’t what you are going to get.

The Nativity Variations runs through December 11, 2022 at the Rep’s Quadracci Powerhouse Theater.

Extra Credit Readings: The Play Guide is here! including the various theatrical references used in the play and The Program is here!

Fair Warning Here: There is a fair amount of adult language used through out the play. There is also some language that people may view as blasphemous. There is some sexual innuendo and tensions here as well.

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