Holiday hazards of the moment include a scorched “Christmas Carol” and an undercooked hipster-y folk rock take on O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi.” But right on the money, somehow, is a medieval mystery play accompanied by a motley assembly of early-form lutes, flutes and bagpipes.
The Folger Theatre’s revival of its unusual 2007 hit “The Second Shepherds’ Play,” delivered with period music by three musicians of the Folger Consort, turns out to be perhaps the most original and most genuinely spirited show of the Christmas season. It’s a farce about a rascal named Mak (a gently mischievous Ryan Sellers) who steals a sheep and hustles it home, where he and his wife, Gill (Tonya Beckman, brassy and witty), try to hide it as a child in their manger. The three shepherds who track Mak down aren’t buying that little miracle.
The telling is joyful, and a perfect project for the Folger. Adaptor-director Mary Hall Surface embraces the anonymous mystery play’s poetry and ripe old vocabulary, so her actors wrap their lips around such unexpected rhymes as “thairns”/“hairns”/“bairns.” Surface proves this is actable, as long as you have such animated speakers as Matthew R. Wilson, Louis E. Davis and Megan Graves as the grumpy and wondrous shepherds.
Surface also makes moderate but clever use of puppets and masks, and the appealing-looking show also features layers of woolly costumes (it’s December in England, and then all of a sudden in Bethlehem) by Adalia Tonneyck, who has a neat trick up her sleeve when an angel appears.
The songs performed by music director Robert Eisenstein, Brian Kay and Daniel Meyers liltingly underscore the shenanigans and take center stage with tone-setting popular tunes from the 15th and 16th centuries. Eisenstein plays medieval fiddle and viol, Kay strums a lute and komuz (the lute’s ancient cousin), and Meyers blows bagpipes and a sackbut (an early slide trombone). This is only a partial list, and singer Emily Noël adds a fine shining soprano. The flavors neatly harmonize with the play’s light comedy and devotional turn.
Far less radiant is the oddly sour “A Christmas Carol Memory” at Creative Cauldron, where a recently orphaned girl’s discordant relatives head to the attic to perform the Charles Dickens tale with long-neglected family puppets. Margie Jervis creates some entertaining puppets for Scrooge’s ghosts, but Jennifer Clements’s script, following a concept by director Laura Connors Hull, is far too talky and bluntly unhappy in its family dynamics. The youngest viewers aren’t the only ones squirming before this laboring “Carol” concludes and leaves you thinking blah. Humbug.
The Hub Theatre’s “The Magi” has a great concept: two musicians on a dive-bar stage and in love, but unsure about where they’re headed. Nix and Jude call their group the Magi, and Rex Daugherty (guitar and keyboard) and Daven Ralston (fiddle and guitar) are cute as doves as they sing and play teenage songwriter Eli Pafumi’s bouncy, pensive folk-pop love songs.
The script by Helen Murray Pafumi — Eli’s mom and Hub’s artistic director — snags on its ultra-granular nagging and moody soliloquies, with one truly splendid showdown. It’s an appealingly fresh approach, though, and you can imagine “The Magi” tuned up down the road and nailing its next gig.
The Second Shepherds’ Play, adapted and directed by Mary Hall Surface. Scenic design, Tony Cisek; lights, Andrew Cissna; puppet design, Aaron Cromie; choreography, Emma Jaster. With Danny Cackley, Lilian Oben and Malinda Kathleen Reese. About 1 hour 40 minutes. Through Dec. 21 at the Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 East Capitol St. SE. Tickets $40-$60. Call 202-544-7077 or visit folger.edu.
A Christmas Carol Memory, conceived and directed by Laura Connors Hull, book by Jennifer Clements. Scenic and costume design, Margie Jervis. About 90 minutes. Through Dec. 20 at Creative Cauldron, 410 S. Maple Ave., Falls Church. Tickets $30. Call 703-436-9948 or visit creativecauldron.org.
The Magi, by Helen Murray Pafumi, music and lyrics by Eli Pafumi. Directed by Kelsey Mesa. Scenic design, Jonathan Dahm Robertson; lights, John D. Alexander. About 90 minutes. Through Dec. 18 at Hub Theatre, 9431 Silver King Ct., Fairfax. Tickets $32. Call 703-999-9999 or visit thehubtheatre.org.