Review: ‘The Second Shepherds’ Play’

tn-500_shepherds_0080Falstaff had the girth and beard to make for a decent Santa, but Shakespeare never wrote anything close to a Christmas play.

Which might pose a problem for Folger Shakespeare Library hoping to present some holiday fare.

But they’ve gotten hold of another text from the middle ages that involves the shepherds who followed the star of Bethlehem to come upon the nativity scene of the first Christmas.

But the first thing to happen in “The Second Shepherds’ Play” is a much more comic caper about a missing sheep investigation that takes them to another cradle, where a couple are hiding the animal in its own swaddling clothes and pretending it’s a baby.

How to meld these two stories of vastly different tones? What could be better than music?

And while there is just one mention of song in the text by an unknown writer and first performed around 1500, director and adaptor Mary Hall Surface added some fine early music with the Folger Consort, who are formally the presenters of the work, first presented to some acclaim in 2007.

Back for the first time in nine years, the production in the warm confines of the Folger unfolds only after some music to set the tone and raise the spirit. A few of the few surviving instrumental pieces from the middle ages are played on violin, lute, recorder and other more obscure instruments by a talented trio.

Musical director Robert Eisenstein is also the fiddler on hand who is first to appear in the performance (he also becomes, in the second act, a passable tree). Brian Kay’s talent on lute and komuz comes fully to the fore to start the second act; he also handles a kind of hand harp called the lyre. And Daniel Meyers switches from recorder to flute to bagpipe to an early form of bagpipe known as the sackbut.

The voices of the cast once singing begins seems suited to the whole earthiness of the proceedings – real people with real voices. But then soprano Emily Noël performs with the consort and lifts everything to a higher level. She’s the perfect choice, then, to appear before the shepards as the angel sharing the good news, in a spectacular scene that’s the result of Tony Cisek’s otherwise economic stage setting and Adalia Tonneyck’s costume design. The latter’s more common choice for the shepherds are softly woven earthen tones.

The camaraderie exuding from the three shepherds Louis E. Davis, Matthew R. Wilson and especially the exuberant young Megan Graves carry them from the sometimes raucous first half to the more reverent conclusion, where they bring to the Christ child not frankincense and myrrh but cherries, a bird and a ball.

Local favorites Ryan Sellers and Tonya Beckman are a highlight as the sheep-swiping couple trying to disguise a bleat as a baby’s cry. But a lot of the charm of the piece has to do with the integrated puppetry, designed by Aaron Cromie and operated by Malinda Kathleen Reese and the ensemble that also includes Emily Noel and Lilian Oben. They not only make the sheep seem to come to life, but also handle the puppet versions of cast to show them climbing mountains or being punished (by hoisting them from a blanket – safer to do with a puppet than with a human, I suppose).

Without the music, “The Second Shepherds’ Play,” so named because it was the second version of the play as published in medieval times, would have been a trifle; with it, it fairly brims with suitable seasonal cheer.

Running time: One hour, 45 minutes, including one 15 minute intermission.

Photo credit: Ryan Sellers and Tonya Beckman in “The Second Shepherds’ Play.” Photo by Brittany Diliberto.

“The Second Shepherds’ Play” continues through Dec. 21 at the Folger Theater, 201 E. Capitol St. SE, Washington, D.C. Call 202-544-7-77 or go online.

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