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The Birth: A Bright light in Bethlehem 

If you've wearied of holiday fare that extols the joy, the warmth, and the proliferating miraculous powers of Christmas -- a new one sprouting up with each new tale and song -- you might take special pleasure in the Starving Artist production of The Birth. Opening last Sunday at Actor's Theatre, The Birth is a Sunday sort of show, meditating on the cosmic meaning of the Nativity with fresh human and theological perspectives, presented by three musicians, two actors, a singer, and a dancer.

Both actors, Joe Rux and Nathan Rouse, appeared together earlier this year at Actor's Theatre in the world premiere of Southern Rapture, and Rux is moonlighting at the same E. Stonewall Street venue, reprising his role as Macy's elf Crumpet in The Santaland Diaries. But it's Rouse who is the driving force here, shaping the writings of novelist/essayist Frederick Buechner into a freshly subtitled "reflective celebration of the coming of Christ."

Rux delivers Buechner's framing meditation, "Message in the Stars," and chips in during a set of Bethlehem monologues with a trio of pertinent readings from Scripture. Among the dramatic manger monologues, all pitched by Rouse discreetly below the fervor of oratory or sermon, is one by the Innkeeper, who regretfully missed it all, one by a Wise Man, who tells of checking in with Herod first, and the last by a shepherd, predictably aglow with wonder.

Interspersed with these wisps of narrative are a half dozen songs sung by vocalist Shelley Jones and the two guitarists, Grant Hopkins and Josh Spence. Percussionist Rodney Kennerly and dancer Kate Rouse, who dances solos to three of the songs, help give the celebration a simple folksy aura. It's all done without a trace of showiness or saccharine, with no other props beside the instruments and the bible, the cabaret setting of Santaland transformed into banks of comfortable folding chairs that enfold the performing space like a meeting hall. An intensely bright spotlight bears down on a bare spot at the center of the stage as this entertaining, thought-provoking 45-minute presentation comes graciously to a close.

The afterglow will likely linger with you as you head outside into the night.

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