Flocking to the Folger to Fluff Up a Medieval Relic

By Celia Wren
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, December 16, 2007

Theater folk typically spend little time contemplating the social skills of sheep. But ovine affability is one of many issues that have recently preoccupied Mary Hall Surface, director and adapter of "The Second Shepherds' Play."

To reinvigorate this medieval mystery play, Surface has wrestled with its abstruse Middle English text, riddled with such words as "mickle" and "brickle" and "litherly." She has drilled her actors, and she has liaised with the members of the Folger Consort, the early-music ensemble that is producing the show. And she has devoted significant attention to the flock that is pivotal to the comic plot of the play, now running at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

The stakes are all the higher for Surface, sheep-puppet designer Aaron Cromie and their colleagues because the Folger production is something of a once-in-a-blue-moon occurrence.

During the Middle Ages, mystery plays retold biblical and apocryphal Christian stories for popular audiences, often in town squares and other quotidian settings. These days, however, the works are largely relegated to English literature courses. University groups have been known to mount them, but U.S. professional theaters virtually never do so. The Folger staging "is a very rare enterprise," says Barbara Palmer, a Fredericksburg-based scholar who heads the U.S. branch of the Records of Early English Drama project.

And yet, "The Second Shepherds' Play" has a boisterous energy that defies its musty provenance. Written sometime in the 15th or 16th century -- the dating is a matter of academic controversy -- the script fuses the Nativity story to a rustic farce. An incorrigible thief named Mak steals a sheep belonging to three shepherds and, when the harried owners come looking, he hides it in a cradle aided by Gill, his equally unscrupulous wife. After this kerfuffle spins itself out, an angel appears to the shepherds -- following the account in the Gospel of Luke -- and they travel to Christ's birthplace in Bethlehem.

"It's a charming tale and full of comedy," says Folger Artistic Producer Janet Alexander Griffin, who initially encountered the story through a children's-book retelling, "Daniel's Gift." A family-friendly dramatization of the narrative would suit the Folger, she thought, given the institution's expertise in showcasing music and theater from bygone centuries. She recruited Surface, a playwright and director known for works for young audiences.

Surface wanted to stage the original text. She admires how "the comic plot in the play and the sacred story work absolutely in tandem, one shining light and giving meaning to the other," she says. For instance, she observes, the rascally behavior of Mak and Gill (portrayed in the Folger production by Andy Brownstein and Holly Twyford) enhances the resonance of the Bethlehem tableau, which was to medieval English audiences -- and still is to Christians today -- an emblem of Christ's triumph over human sin.

Appreciating the play was one thing; bringing it to life was another. Surface decided to avoid any arch postmodern techniques. "In no way do we wink at the audience in a modern perspective," she says. However, she adds, "my goal in this has not been to somehow create an authentic replica of medieval theater," but rather to supply an "engaging, moving evening for a 21st-century audience."

She started by updating some of the Middle English words so the dialogue would be more intelligible to contemporary listeners. Subsequently, during rehearsals, she helped the actors apply the brakes to the verse's singsong rhyme scheme. "There's a great risk of sounding like Dr. Seuss," Surface says.

Other aspects of her production evoke the original staging conditions for comparable medieval dramas (almost nothing is known for certain about the original airings -- or the authorship -- of "The Second Shepherds' Play" itself). Mystery plays were often mounted by craft guilds -- the word "mystery" alludes to an archaic term for "guild" -- and performed on wagons that moved through a town. Accordingly, the Folger production contains processions -- "it's a fine line; you don't want it to look like a bad Christmas pageant," Surface notes -- and Erin Nugent's costumes principally suggest medieval peasant garb.

As for puppet guru Cromie (who contributed to the Folger Theatre's previous productions "Measure for Measure" and "Two Gentlemen of Verona"), he says his designs, too, aim at a "roughhewn" aesthetic, as though the puppets were the low-tech creations of medieval townspeople. (Also an actor, Cromie portrays the shepherd named Gib in this production.) Most critically to the show's overall effect, Surface was determined that the music should be "as central as the words." So the Folger Consort musicians wear costumes and portray a few of the story's characters: Tom Zajac, who plays bagpipes, hurdy-gurdy, sackbut and other instruments, stands in for Joseph.

Robert Eisenstein, the Folger Consort's co-artistic director, says he generally objects to the public's enthusiasm for seeing early-music ensembles in period dress. "I just hate it," he confesses. "I abhor it. I'm a 21st-century musician!" In this instance, though, he thinks the attire is "legitimate."

As the production's music director, Eisenstein has selected songs and instrumental music that might conceivably have been heard at early performances of "The Second Shepherds' Play." During the course of the show, the score evolves chronologically: Tunes dating to the 15th century and earlier give way to 16th-century pieces, so that, in Eisenstein's words, there's "an intensification, a change in the sound of what you hear, as the play makes that miraculous change" from low comedy to spiritual revelation.

Although the latter looms huge in the play's worldview, Surface thinks this production -- music, puppetry and all -- can appeal to audiences regardless of their specific religious beliefs: The story depicts characters whose lives are "turned upside down with hope and possibility," she says, adding, "We can all relate to that."

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