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Folger Consort: Second Shepherds Play

Aaron Cromie, Chris Wilson, and Bob McDonald as Shepherds (foreground) with Folger Consort musicians Robert Eisenstein, Charles Weaver, and Tom Zajac (background), Second Shepherds' Play, Folger Shakespeare Library, 2007, photo by Carol Pratt
If you really must attend a holiday concert, make it something musicologically interesting. In what has become an annual tradition (see the 2005 and 2006 installments), the Folger Consort is presenting the most appealing and satisfying Christmas concert in the city, by collaborating on a staged production of the Second Shepherds' Play, an English mystery play from the Towneley cycle. Director Mary Hall Surface began by modernizing the play's Middle English text, while keeping enough of its archaic vocabulary to preserve something of the original's flavor. Unlike many medieval dramas, especially those in Latin, there is no music recorded in the manuscript, but it makes sense to imagine the work performed with some kind of music, instrumental or vocal. Robert Eisenstein of the Folger Consort worked his usual magic to select a varied program of historical music perfectly suited to the play, including a short set introducing each of the two acts, instrumental music to accompany action, and songs sung by the characters as part of the action.

The story is hardly unfamiliar: when Jesus was born, an angel appeared to shepherds in the fields outside Bethlehem, telling them the good news that a savior has been born, to go to the manger and see him. But who were those shepherds? What were they doing when the angel appeared to them? How did they talk? What sort of lives did they live? The ingenuity of the mystery play is that the author or authors, anonymous in this case, answer those questions, filling out the story with fleshier characters, and make these somewhat mysterious people from the Gospel just like their viewers.

The whole first act is given over to the three poor shepherds and their daily complaints. The gentry lord their wealth over them. The youngest shepherd, a wily servant, even complains about his masters. They worry about their flock when the untrustworthy Mak appears on the moors, suspected of stealing. Always cunning, Mak plots a way to steal one of the sheep, which his wife, the shrewish Gill, tries to pass off as her newest-born (the lamb in the cradle foreshadowing the birth at Bethlehem). Once we feel as if we know these characters and see them like ourselves, suddenly the English shepherds intersect with the Biblical story and become the shepherds of Bethlehem.

As the criminal couple, Mak and Gill, Andy Brownstein and Holly Twyford were crass and loveable (Mak's massacred Latin -- "Manus tuas commendo, Pontio Pilato" -- was a high point), and the three shepherds of Bob McDonald, Aaron Cromie, and Chris Wilson showed enthusiasm and comic timing. Aaron Cromie's puppets were joyously effective at relating the shifts of place between scenes. The rustic and minimalistic set pieces, designed by Tony Cisek (with properties designed by Andrew Conway), recalled the traveling outfits that may have originally staged works like the Second Shepherds' Play.

As part of the ensemble, musicians Robert Eisenstein (fiddle and viol), Charles Weaver (lute, cittern, and related instruments), and Tom Zajac (recorder and other winds, hurdy gurdy, and that charming paragon of pastoral instruments, the musette) wove themselves into the drama seamlessly. That they played all of that music from memory enhanced the realism of the production but may have accounted for a few slips at Saturday evening's performance. The singing from the ensemble, most of them not trained early music voices, was uneven but pleasingly earnest. The exception was the golden-haired and golden-voiced soprano Kate Vetter Cain, who sang beautiful solos in the two musical sets. Her spectacular appearance as the angel was one of the most striking theatrical moments of my year (costumes designed by Erin Nugent), with an excerpt of a Sarum Gloria and the Angelus ad virginem carol.

Other Reviews:

Celia Wren, Flocking to the Folger to Fluff Up a Medieval Relic (Washington Post, December 16)

Peter Marks, With Medieval 'Shepherds,' Folger Tends to Delight (Washington Post, December 18)
The musical selections are both familiar and ingeniously chosen. Nearly every popular medieval English carol is on the docket, but happily in versions that have not been modernized tonally. The text does not really specify much in the way of music, but it makes clear reference to it, as when the shepherds sing a partsong (ironically, Sumer is icumen in), assigning themselves the parts of tenory, tryble, and meyne. After the angel makes her pronouncement, the shepherds praise her singing, saying that she was note-perfect ("was no crochett wrong / nor no thyng that lakt it").

This says something about the group that produced the Towneley plays: they had some knowledge of the terminology of learned music of the time and they had enough Latin to list the parts in the play by their Latin names (Primus Pastor, Secundus Pastor, and so on) and to distinguish between the decent Latin quoted by the wiser shepherds and Mak's bad Latin. Whoever they were, this slightly modernized version holds up impressively well on the Folger's intimate stage. It was a musically and dramatically pleasing evening, and cutting through all of my cynicism about holiday music to speak (briefly) as a Catholic, the conclusion was a profoundly spiritual experience.

Performances of the Second Shepherds' Play are scheduled almost every day through December 30: Tuesdays to Thursdays, 7:30 pm; Fridays, 8 pm; Saturdays, at 2 pm and 8 pm; Sundays, 2 pm and 7 pm. No performance, of course, on Christmas Day (December 25), plus an added performance on December 27, 2 pm. In the New Year, the Folger Consort will give its annual concerts at Washington National Cathedral, this year performing Victoria's gorgeous Requiem Mass (January 11 and 12, 8 pm).


Anonymous said...

I love the art used with this review. Could you post the name of the painting and the illustrated manuscript page?

Charles T. Downey said...

It has been so long, I no longer remember where I found those images. Sorry!