Away in a manger, a fluffy sheep lies; a thief and his wifey have hidden their prize! The sheep it was stolen from shepherds at night, the thief and his wifey shall pay for their slight! Not exactly the Christmas Story everyone remembers when the angel came to announce the babe in the manger in Bethlehem, but quite the merry tale of revelry and celebration, this Second Shepherds’ Play. Returning to The Folger Theatre, after its successful run in 2007, this intriguing medieval mystery play— Adapted and Directed by Mary Hall Surface— features lively English music of the era woven warmly into the tale of the miraculous birth in Bethlehem that Christmas night. Of a simpler time and a peaceful nature, The Second Shepherds’ Play is a humbling experience that alights basic joy in the hearts of theatergoers with its elegant story and delicate songs.
Adapted to the stage by Director Mary Hall Surface, this unique retelling of an iconic Medieval Mystery play is off the beaten path when it comes to traditional Christmas tales but still rings true with the holiday’s narrative as a great many have come to know it. While Surface’s adaptation calls some curious moments to the attention all throughout the performance— like the striking profundity of the star of Bethlehem symbolically lighting the night sky early on from the back of the house, suspended from a shepherd’s crook or the more irreverent gesture of passing baby Jesus around the gathered shepherds— there is mostly a good spirit that permeates the performance; this spirit is guided soundly by the lively music which underscores a great many of the scenes and even wends its way through them into festive song and dance.
Musical Director Robert Eisenstein captures the essence of medieval minstrels, placing three of them live into the throng of the action on the stage. With Eisenstein himself a part of the trio, Brian Kay and Daniel Meyers join the revels and lively deliver wondrous tunes like “Estampie” and “Half-hannikin”, which inspire a merry mood to the stage. Lutes, lyres, bagpipes and all make the musical engagement that much more authentic and Eisenstein drives an appropriate pace to each of the tunes as they shift throughout the show. Meyers’ specialty appears to be the bagpipes while Kay soothes the soul with his enchanting harp later in the second act.
When the players take to dancing, under the choreographic guidance of Emma Jaster, they fit right into verve of the music and everyone appears to be entreated by these simply delights afford by even simpler song and movement. Jaster’s movement work, particularly when it comes to the ensemble players Malinda Kathleen Reese and Danny Cackley, regarding the puppets add a humorous flavor to the performance. Puppet Designer Aaron Cromie incorporates rod-style puppets for characters every time they have to traverse the mountains from the fields and the moors to where Gill and Mak keep their cabin. This becomes an inherent comic gimmick that gives the audience a good chuckle when the Cromie’s puppet designs come into play.
The Costumes, designed in simplicity by Adalia Tonneyck, match the basic layout of Tony Cisek’s scenic design. Earthen tones and hue populate both cloth and structure, grounding the production in the firm roots of a time long ago. Tonneyck deserves a hearty nod of holiday praise for the glorious celestial drape featured on the Angel (Emily Noël); both its appearance and its effect in removal are heavenly and fully completely the illusion for Noël’s arrival in her true state. While there is singing aplenty throughout the performance, there is none so sweet as when Noël takes to delivering it. With a voice akin to her character’s namesake, the radiant resplendence of heavenly light arrives in “Gloria in excelsis deo”, serving as the vocal harbinger to the true plot’s message.
Though ensemble players Danny Cackley and Malinda Kathleen Reese are not of those with spoken lines in the production, each finds their niche and settles into the performance soundly with Cackley often serving as the symbolic torch bearer where the star is concerned. Reese, whose primary purpose is to vocalize and puppet the sheep, does a fine job of earning laughter from the audience with her sharp timing on delivery of sheep bleats. Lilian Oben, also of the ensemble, takes up the reverent role of Mary at the end, and while the choice to pass the slumbering babe among the shepherds is an unusual one, Oben does so with grace.
Gib (Matthew R. Wilson), Coll (Louis E. Davis) and Daw (Megan Graves) are the good shepherds tending their flock by night. Though Graves’ character is the latecomer to the trio, and understood to be the youngest among them, she is not without spunk and spirit when it comes to engaging with the others. It is her vision— both of the nightmarish wolf and continually of the star of Bethlehem— which motivates the plot forward. All three of the performers take turns having expertly practiced delivery of their text, taking the archaic sounds and imbuing them with emotional understanding to import to us the underlying message of the word.
Gill (Tonya Beckman) and Mak (Ryan Sellers) are quite the duo when it comes to comic tomfoolery and snickering shenanigans. Sellers, who brings a swarthy and stealthy quality to his sneak-thief character, is quite the mastermind when it comes to plotting and scheming, with Beckman being right at his side when it comes time to execute these fiendish plans. Over the top and melotheatrical, Beckman matches Sellers energy scene for scene and moment for moment as the major focus of the story— a stolen sheep— gets underway.
A less familiar tradition of Christmas, but a time-honored one just the same, The Second Shepherds’ Play is an evening of simple mirth and lighthearted enjoyment that is worth witnessing to partake in at least one Christmas miracle this holiday season.
Running Time: 95 minutes with one intermission
The Second Shepherds’ Play plays through December 21, 2016 at the Folger Theatre in the Folger Shakespeare Library— 201 E. Capitol Street SE in Washington DC. For tickets call the box office at (202) 544-7077 or purchase them online.