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If I could host a dinner for five "unforgettable" San Diegans from long ago, one guest would have to be Apolinaria Lorenzana. Called "La Beata" -- "the blessed one" -- she came to Alta California as an orphan in 1800. The government ordered her to marry and raise a large family, but she never did. Instead she became a nurse at the mission, godmother for at least 100 children, and a teacher (even a saint, some say). At one time she owned three ranchos, then lost them through guile or legalese, or both. She died, blind and indigent, at Santa Barbara in 1884, having lived through all the turmoil of 19th-Century California.

Some of Lorenzana's favorite memories were the pastorelas the San Diego pueblo staged, each Christmas, at the mission and in private homes. "They would call upon me to look for people to play the various roles," she told Thomas Savage in 1878. "I would also organize everything," especially the costumes, like the blazing red one Pio Pico wore when he played Lucifer on Christmas Eve, 1837. In effect, Lorenzana cast, designed, and most likely directed the local pastorelas, making her possibly the first artistic director of San Diego theater.

One of the oldest of Christmas traditions, dating back into the Middle Ages in Europe, pastorelas tell the story of the shepherds on their way to Bethlehem. At several points, Lucifer and his minions try to thwart the pilgrims' journey, using fear and temptation. But the humble band, aided by mighty archangels, prevails, and they join wealthy kings and lowly animals at the manger.

When missionaries introduced pastorelas to the New World in the 1500s, the genre underwent a sea change. Instead of strict good-versus-evil morality plays, they became so ribald and joyous that priests tried to ban them. But like the undaunted shepherds, families refused to stop and performed the celebrations in their homes.

This shift created a second tradition: no two pastorelas are alike. Each is tailored to the city, town, or even the street where it's staged. Civic events, heroes and villains entwine with the story, making it at once timeless and personal: a local doer of good becomes Archangel Michael; a corrupt politico or evil landlord, Lucifer.

For 17 years, Teatro Mascara Magica has presented an always popular pastorela for the holiday season. Every year Max Branscomb, teacher of journalism at Southwestern College, updates the story -- in rhymed couplets. In this year's version, young Guadalupe wants to win on American Idol so bad she swears she'll sell her soul to the devil. She's half-kidding, but Oops! Ever alert to weakness, in rush Moloch and Satan -- at, the red-clad demons claim, her service. To save her from their wicked grasp, the forces of good time-travel Guadalupe back to the first Noel.

If you're expecting a typical "shepherds' play," you've never seen TMM's always free-lance, raucous pastorela. The shepherds don swain mufti, true, but among Satan's various guises, this year, are Elvis "the King" and a slinky Jim Morrison (Joey Molina's a standout at both, along with a self-bleeping super-chef). Dave Rivas's Satan's a see-moan Vato, and as Moloch, Rhys Green does an exact imitation of Sammy Davis Jr., singing "Candy Man." The Archangel Gabriel (Edwin Ortiz) doesn't blow a horn; he plays a white, left-handed Stratocaster, à la Jimi H.

Lucifer takes credit for global warming, is proud to see the earth becoming a second Hell. But times're tough even in the Inferno; the economy's so rotten that mid-level devils fear getting downsized.

Branscomb's scripts not only celebrate the holidays; they're also a year in review: who's been naughty (Sunroad takes it on the chin, or, as t'were, on its illegal top floors) and nice. When he saves the shepherds, the Archangel Michael adopts various guises. At one point he wears #21 on a Chargers jersey and snakes through the evildoers, whom the script labels "Raider Nation," in slo-mo. But for hometown heroes, and it's a sign of the times, L.T. had competition in 2007. When Michael came to the rescue dressed as a firefighter, the opening-night audience went nuts.

Willie Greene's great-sized performance as Archangel Michael has become a holiday tradition. Few can ignite an audience like Greene, who, on several occasions, turns the Lyceum stage into a hand-clapping, air-guitar-strumming rock concert.

Director William Virchis, who calls it the "B plot of the nativity," usually stages the pastorela on someone else's set (in this case, the Rep's recent La Quinceañera), with someone else's lighting plot, and with a cast of varying talents but full commitment. When he wants, the show rocks, but Virchis also keeps a humble, even makeshift feel -- the shepherds go on an unrehearsed odyssey into the unknown; why not the cast as well? The combination's like watching Jesus Christ Superstar: heartfelt but minus all the glitz.

La Pastorela de la Raza, by Max Branscomb

Lyceum Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza, downtown

Directed by William Virchis; cast: Willie Greene, Edwin Ortiz, Joey Molina, Dave Rivas, Rhys Green, Cleve Andre Jacobs Jr., Oli Rosa, Amanda Graham, Marina Inserra, Augustin Castaneda, Dulce Leyva-Fernandez, Catherine Andrews, Christian Campos, Crystal Moore, Roberto Milbauer Gonzalez, Julie Inserra, Sylvia Enrique, MC Perez, Chuck Hart, Ary Hernandez, Yvette Rojas, Enrique Rosales Jr.; lighting, Jason Bieber; sound, Jermaine Loyce

Playing through December 30; Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-544-1000.

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