Keralee Froebel became entranced by the Lady of Guadalupe in the early 90s while living in Santa Fe down the block from the Santuario de Guadalupe, the oldest such shrine in the country. "I feel like there's a distinct energy to the Virgin Mary," says the Pilsen artist. "I really connected with her." On a 1991 trip to Mexico City, she joined the thousands of pilgrims visiting the Basilica de Guadalupe, built on the spot where the virgin allegedly appeared to an Indian peasant and left her image emblazoned on his cape. "They have this huge church with the cape [on display], and they have six moving walkways below it," says Froebel. "The people start to go to it, to see it--they're on their knees, crawling, from a half mile away."
The devotion of the believer is only part of the inspiration for Froebel's raucous six-year-old Christmas pageant, which this year goes by the name Shamanic Nativity Trance: Jesuspalooza. Equal parts drama, slapstick, satire, and musical, the multimedia spectacle uses video, a ragtag script, and the collective imagination of its volunteer cast to tell--extremely loosely--the story of the virgin birth.
Froebel, who describes herself as "very interested in the spiritual experience, which is the creative experience," grew up in rural Minnesota, graduated from Oberlin College in 1988 with a degree in creative writing and a minor in theater, and soon landed in Santa Fe, which, she says, was like Pilsen, "but with more adobe, more wealth." After a year and a half waitressing, doing theater, and teaching art, she headed back north to Minneapolis, where she worked as a nurses' assistant in the maternity ward at Abbott Northwestern Hospital. There she witnessed several live births--something that "as a society we don't get to see"--and was awestruck.
In 1995 she got involved with a group of rock 'n' roll guys who were putting on a version of Jesus Christ Superstar called JC Superstar. "It was just sublime in this very unlikely way," she says. "I thought it was such a cool dichotomy to have these major partyers doing this beautiful musical. I was working in the maternity ward, and I remember walking down the street in Minneapolis and thinking, what would it be like to celebrate Mary at Christmas? In this really cool way?"
She staged her first pageant, Way Down in the Laundry Room, one night in 1998 in the unusually large laundry room of her apartment building. Featuring a cast of about a dozen, including several of the JC Superstar musicians, the show utilized "lots of hay," Christmas lights, a plastic camel, and a video of a live birth to mark the moment Jesus was born. The audience sat on old car seats, the floor, and the washers and dryers.
Froebel put on another pageant the following year in the laundry room; the next year she moved to Chicago, but held the event back in Minneapolis in a friend's gallery. In 2001 she put on shows in both cities, and last year the show (under the moniker Southern Fried Nativity Trance) landed at its current home, Teatro Luna in Pilsen.
This year's pageant--which Froebel swears is her last--is coproduced by her friend Mark Treitman, with help from video designer Christian Matts and graphic designer and painter Allen Berry, among others. Joseph (played by Paul Frese) is not a carpenter, but a brute of a professional wrestler whose central conflict is his distrust of his mysteriously impregnated wife, played by a guy named Dareese--no last name. The shepherds are U.S. soldiers camped in the desert on a break from their ongoing search for weapons of mass destruction. The three kings are played by Greg Nesbitt, one of the original JC Superstar musicians, as a rapper named "We 3 K."
"In our culture, we don't get down on our knees for anything except the bills," says Froebel. "Collectively, we have a love of competition and sports, but there's this sweet devotion that's part of other cultures I've had the opportunity to visit that we in America just don't have for anything. In my own way I think maybe I'm trying to get back to that."
Shamanic Nativity Trance: Jesuspalooza runs Thursday, December 18, through Saturday, December 20, at Teatro Luna, 556 W. 18th. Performances are at 8 PM each night, with additional shows Friday and Saturday at 10. Tickets are $10 ($8 if you BYOB); call 312-421-8665 for more information.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Eric Fogelman.