The Second Shepherd’s Play
By an Unknown Author
Directed and Adapted by Mary Hall Surface
Produced by Folger Consort
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
The key to understanding The Second Shepherd’s Play is to realize that the customary penalty for stealing a sheep is death. It seems somewhat counterintuitive to we who can buy a nice package of lamb chops for $5.99. But in a society whose economy was as close to the bone as was that of the shepherds Coll (Bob McDonald), Gib (Aaron Cromie), and Daw (Chris Wilson), stealing a sheep was an act of terrorism. When, at the height of the Christmas season, the buffoonish Mak (Andy Brownstein) and his shrewish wife and accomplice Gill (Holly Twyford) hit upon the astonishing scheme to disguise a stolen sheep (a Cromie creation, expertly manipulated by Paige Hernandez) as their own infant, they signed their death warrant.
It is an interesting experience to look back 600 years in time and discover – us. Mak, a character for whom the phrase “harebrained scheme” would have been a term of honor, could have been played by Jackie Gleason, and if he had said, “to the Moon, Gill,” it would not have been out of place. The hapless shepherds could have been played by the Three Stooges, or, later, by Owen Wilson and Ben Stiller.
Like the schemes of Ralph Kramden (or of Homer Simpson, another character for whom Mak was a prototype), Mak’s scheme is found out in short order at the top of the second act. Do the wronged shepherds then execute him, as was the custom of the day? No. Do they pluck out his eye, or cut off his hand, as would be appropriate punishment in many societies, then and now? No. Instead, they haul him into the public square, and there bounce him up and down on a large blanket, in the style of Annette Funicello in Beach Blanket Bingo. It is a well-deserved embarrassment to the thief, but is otherwise more difficult on the punishment dispensers than on the punishment recipient.
After this display of mercy, the rarest of human virtues, a magnificent angel (the operatically voiced Kate Vetter Cain) appears to invite the shepherds to Bethlehem to visit the Christ child. Was the Medieval author of The Second Shepherd’s Play actually a science-fiction specialist writing about time travel? No, but it is possible the author is telling us that at every moment in every nation Almighty God is being born anew, and being made visible to us if we have the wit and heart to see it.
It is the peculiar genius of Adapter Mary Hall Surface to meld this story with a selection of period music, which musicians Charles Weaver, Tom Zajac and Artistic Co-Director Robert Eisenstein (who served as Music Director) played on period instruments with great sweetness and tenderness. Indeed, Surface takes great pains to assure us that the entire production apparatus is not materially different than it would have been at the time it was first performed, using stage equipment familiar to medieval audiences – a machine which brilliantly recreated wind sounds is particularly notable.
Twyford is as good as ever in her return to the stage after a brief hiatus. Brownstein is extraordinarily warm and natural as the sheep-thief; we would have felt bad if the shepherds had poked out his eye, or cut off his head. It is a hard thing to do, to be a loveable villain, but Brownstein has a handle on it, and is thus convincing. Puppet Master Cromie turns in a highly creditable performance in his stage debut as a henpecked husband for whom a turn guarding sheep in the frigid moors is a decided relief. And the language – well, the language is ancient. I understood about three-quarters of it, and I was really paying attention. In retrospect, I wish I had just sat back, mellowed out, and taken impressions. Although the Folger recommends the show for kids eight and up, your nine-year-old will have to be pretty laid back to enjoy this. I’d recommend starting at fifteen.
Like all Christmas plays, The Second Shepherd’s Play (‘Second’ modifies “play”, not “shepherd”) is about small acts of heroism. The shepherds, like all true heroes, bring gifts – cherries, a bird, a ball – fully the equal of gold, frankincense and myrrh, or of anything else anyone could imagine. Their greatest gift, of course, was already behind them: the act of mercy, which was an act of redemption, in concert with the redemption of the world.
Running Time: 1:40, with one intermission.
When: until Dec 30. Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7.30, Fridays and Saturdays at 8, and Sundays at 7. Matinees on Saturdays and Sundays, and on Thursday, Dec 27, at 2. No show on Dec 25.
Where: Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 East Capitol Street SE, Washington
About the Music:
There is a certain tone of music and a certain style of singing which immediately identifies a song as being from the English Middle Ages, and we are swaddled with it upon our entrance into the play. You know the type of music: think of “Greensleeves” and it will explain everything to you.
Part of the explanation for this distinct style is the instrumentation – the lute, the medieval five-stringed fiddle, the harp, and the organistrum, which is played with a wind-up handle and sounds almost like a tiny synthesizer. Another, more familiar term of the organistrum is the hurdy-gurdy, but until I saw Tom Zajac work one over I had no idea what the term meant.
The medieval orchestra was short on brass instruments, metal having been principally reserved for armament, but there were a number of simple-looking reeds called “shawns”; these put out remarkably subtle and sophisticated sounds. The precursors of the modern bagpipes and trombone also made their appearances; they were smaller and simpler than their contemporary cousins. Zajac, a wonderfully eclectic musical scholar, played on all these obsolete instruments with great skill, and a superb sense of their limitation.
The singing features the roundelay style which we frequently associate both with Christmas Carols and medieval England (and also with “Row, row, row your boat…”) There is a reason for this: roundelay music had its origins in English folk traditions. When we watch the 11 o’clock song in any Broadway Musical, where the hero and the heroine simultaneously sing different but thematically and musically harmonious songs, we are watching a tradition which was noted as long ago as 1198.