In a season full of holiday spectacle, the rarely performed The Second Shepherds’ Play stands out for its sweet simplicity. With only a small three-piece band of expert musicians and modest, yet effective, staging and design, director and adapter Mary Hall Surface and her cast create a gentle bit of Christmas magic that is uniquely their own.
Dating back to the Middle Ages, The Second Shepherds’ Play is a piece from the mystery cycles, a series of European liturgical dramas that followed the events of the bible. Members of craft guilds performed these plays once a year over the course of several days, with each guild responsible for one section of the cycle. The Second Shepherds’ Play is one of the most famous of the surviving mystery plays, due to its unusual focus on everyday people (rather than biblical characters) and mix of low farce and high religion.
The play follows the journey of three shepherds in the hours before the birth of Christ. They are searching for one of their finest and fattest sheep, which has been stolen by the comically scheming Mak (Ryan Sellers). Mak, who has stolen the sheep to feed his family, and his wife Gill (Tonya Beckman) hide the sheep from its owners by putting it in a cradle and pretending Gill has just given birth (mirroring the image of infant Jesus in the manger). The ruse is discovered, but rather than have Mak severely punished, the shepherds opt to show him mercy. Here, the tone takes a sudden serious shift. As if summoned by the shepherds’ choice to be merciful, an angel (Emily Noël ) appears bringing news of Christ’s birth. The shepherds journey to Bethlehem to meet the child and offer gifts and blessings.
Likewise, the farcical elements (which are of the “take my wife, please” variety) may not appeal to modern audiences, especially those interested in plays that better represent women. These scenes read like less sophisticated versions of The Honeymooners or the Marx Brothers. Which is both delightful, in that there is such familiarity in a script from the Middle Ages, and difficult in that the humor is casually misogynistic and a bit too under-developed to be out-and-out hilarious in contemporary times. But for those who are interested, you could hardly find a better introduction to medieval era theatre and music.
closes December 21, 2016
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The key to the success of this production is the warmth and affection the artists bring to the material. Surface and ensemble balance the low farce with sincerity and modest production elements that feel at home in the world of this play. The set (Tony Cisek) has just a few key elements that suggest the outdoor stages and wagons on which the mystery plays were originally produced. The costumes (Adalia Tonneyck) look homespun. Simple and clever effects, such as using ribbons to represent wind, and the use of puppetry provide just the right touch of theatre magic.
The Second Shepherds’ Play is produced by Folger Consort, the Folger Shakespeare Library’s early music ensemble, and right from the beginning when the trio of musicians and their period instruments (Robert Eisenstein on fiddle, viol and recorder, Brian Kay on lute, lyre and komuz, and Daniel Meyers on recorder, flute, bagpipe, and other instruments) take the stage it is clear that music will be central to this production. Surface and music director Eisenstein have interspersed the text with medieval-era music, both instrumentals and carols. The carols are sung with spirit by the cast, though not always with perfect pitch. Most notable is the lovely voice of the featured singer Emily Noël who also brings her soaring soprano to the role of the Angel. The music of the era is rhythmic and features multiple interwoven melodies at the same time, similar to rounds. It is the kind of celebratory music that beckons you to clap, sing and dance along – perfect for the holiday season.
The Second Shepherds’ Play may not appeal to all contemporary theatre-goers, but it is a delightful holiday present to audiences looking for a Christmas play that is warm-hearted and sincere.
The Second Shepherds’ Play, adapted and directed by Mary Hall Surface. Music Direction by Robert Eisenstein. Featuring Tonya Beckman, Danny Cackley, Louis E. Davis, Robert Eisenstein, Megan Graves, Brian Kay, Daniel Meyers, Emily Noël, Lilian Oben, Malinda Kathleen Reese, Ryan Sellars, Matthew R. Wilson. Scenic Designer: Tony Cisek. Lighting Designer: Andrew Cissna. Costumer: Adalia Tonneyck. Puppet Designer: Aaron Crombie. Choreographer: Emma Jaster. Produced by Folger Consort. Reviewed by Amy Couchoud.