With Medieval 'Shepherds,' Folger Tends to Delight

Holly Twyford and Andy Brownstein as sheep thieves in the mystery play.
Holly Twyford and Andy Brownstein as sheep thieves in the mystery play. (By Carol Pratt -- Folger Consort)
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The opportunity to experience a play from the mystery cycles of the Middle Ages is such a rare occurrence that for novelty alone, Folger Consort's staging of "The Second Shepherds' Play" qualifies as a lovely seasonal surprise.

The bonus is that the production has been directed by Mary Hall Surface with an abiding affection for the work's gentle farcical elements, for its affable mix of sacred and earthly concerns. And the intermingling of carols, instrumental pieces and other songs from the period, performed by the Consort's early-music experts, provides splendidly festive embroidery.

The mystery cycles, also known as the Corpus Christi plays, were presented from 1378 on in a number of cities in Northern England. These liturgical dramas, drawn from events in the Old and New Testaments, were traditionally presented once a year by the various tradesmen's guilds of the town. Scholars believe that the plays may have begun as pageants mounted on wagons and paraded through a town, and later developed into more elaborate presentations at designated outdoor stations.

Folger Consort's production offers a sweet initiation to the manner in which a mystery play could reconcile the realm of divinity and the practicalities of daily life for its audience. "The Second Shepherds' Play," for instance, weaves the story of the Nativity into a rustic farce about a group of foolish shepherds whose favorite sheep is stolen out from under their noses by a devious neighbor (Andy Brownstein) desperate to put meat in the mouths of his own, growing brood.

The tone of "The Second Shepherds' Play" shifts quite suddenly in its latter stages; the rudimentary plot advances from the low comedy of the shepherds' deception by Brownstein's thieving Mak and his wife, Gill (Holly Twyford), to the more sober and reverent atmosphere of the shepherds' pilgrimage to visit Christ in the manger. (An impressively adorned angel, played by Kate Vetter Cain, sings the shepherds off to Bethlehem.)

Although they're too primitively constructed for us to find them truly funny, the scenes in Mak and Gill's cottage provide intriguing parallels to the scene in the manger. Mak and Gill's disguising of the sheep as a baby in the cradle is clearly an allusion to the Nativity and perhaps is intended to suggest the imperfect world into which the Christ child has been born. The idea of Christ as the lamb of God would certainly have struck a chord with an audience in the 15th century.

A challenge for a contemporary production is to enliven the simple story without patronizing it. Surface commendably balances her respect for the original intent with the need for some supplemental theatricality. She uses a text that has modernized much of the play's Middle English and charmingly incorporates animal and other puppets designed by Aaron Cromie.

Songs and carols composed in the late 14th through 16th centuries have also been added by the Folger Consort, and through vocal contributions by, among others, Cain and Bob McDonald, the music stirringly navigates the ether between heaven and earth. Like medieval entertainers, three musicians -- Robert Eisenstein, Charles Weaver and Tom Zajac -- wander across the stage and sometimes into the audience, performing on a variety of old instruments, from bagpipes to recorder-like shawms.

The actors have a tougher time, as they must contend with the bluntness of the script. One might have wished for a bit more definition in the personalities of the shepherds, played by McDonald, Cromie and Chris Wilson. (It's probably wise, though, that the cast makes no attempt at the Northern accents.) Brownstein and especially, Twyford -- nice to see her back on the stage, by the way -- get more mileage out of the conniving Mak and Gill. And in the role of the object of their cunning, sheep-puppet manipulator Paige Hernandez can baa with the best of them.

Surface imbues the piece with the feel of child's play. Tony Cisek's set is the delicate suggestion of olden days: a spinning wheel here, an ancient doorway there. Mak's hilly journeys from his cottage to the shepherds' moors are undertaken by a puppet version of the character. And costume designer Erin Nugent cloaks the company in the colorfully rugged fabrics of hard-knock country folk.

Over the centuries, the mystery cycles fell into disfavor, but interest in them was revived by scholars in the 20th century who viewed them as important both as a facet of popular entertainment and the evolution of drama outside the direct control of the church. Folger Consort's revival is a fascinating spyglass on theater's past.

The Second Shepherds' Play, author unknown. Directed and adapted by Mary Hall Surface. Lighting, Dan Covey; choreography, Roberta Gasbarre. With Jon Reynolds, Magdalyn Donnelly. About 1 hour 45 minutes. Through Dec. 30 at Folger Theatre, 201 E. Capitol St. SE. Call 202-544-7077 or visit

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