The staging is by Folger Consort, the early music ensemble-in-residence at Folger Shakespeare Library.
The centuries-old religious work, whose author is unknown, is "a rich blend of music and theatre, the earthly and the divine," and features Helen Hayes Award-winning actors Holly Twyford and Andy Brownstein and a cast of actors and musicians in a retelling of the Nativity story.
"The magic of The Second Shepherds' Play and the wonderful possibilities for combining talents and expertise at Folger Shakespeare Library were among the reasons that I began to look at this early dramatic piece," stated Janet Alexander Griffin, Folger's artistic producer. "It seemed a winning combination — performance by Folger Consort of festive medieval English tunes, much of which the ensemble has already recorded; stage direction by Mary Hall Surface, who I admired for her ability to stage classic works for audiences of every age; and, on stage, actors and other performers with a special history with Folger Theatre. The enthusiasm by Folger Institute to convene a special scholarly workshop on the play and the history of its origin and performance means that multiple areas of the Folger's work can be highlighted."
According to Folger, "The Second Shepherds' Play is, at its core, a story of ordinary people and extraordinary events and is part of a long tradition of everyday people gathering in a jubilant celebration, complete with lively dances and songs."
Director Mary Hall Surface stated, "The Second Shepherds' Play gives voice to the immediacy and relevance of the faith of its creators. For the play's author and his community, Christ's birth was not merely a past event but also an ever-unfolding mystery, present in everyday life." Instead of three wise men, the anonymous author of The Second Shepherds' Play gives voice to three humble shepherds — Coll (Bob McDonald), Gib (Aaron Cromie) and Daw (Chris Wilson) — "in this delightful and often boisterous inversion of the traditional Nativity story set in the English countryside," according to Folger. "As the shepherds settle in for the night, conniving thief Mak (Andy Brownstein) takes advantage of their exhausted slumber to steal a prize sheep. With help from his crafty wife, Gill (Holly Twyford), Mak disguises the sheep as a newborn child. The shepherds soon discover the couple's ruse and bring Mak to justice with a merciful twist. Coll, Gib, and Daw return to their flock with the recovered sheep. An angel suddenly appears, announcing news of a child born in Bethlehem. The shepherds immediately make their way to the manger, where they joyfully discover Mary and her infant son. This interweaving of tales does not merely add the secular to the sacred; the story of Mak and Gill and their 'lamb' in the manger foreshadows the coming Nativity story and offers several parallels."
Mary Hall Surface worked primarily from Greg Walker's Middle English text and the slightly more modernized version found in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, while referencing several modernized versions. She collaborated with Folger Consort artistic director Robert Eisenstein to interweave music throughout the production.
For more information, visit www.folger.edu.
According to Folger, "the specific dating of The Second Shepherds' Play is much debated. It is one of two plays about the shepherds abiding in the field that were preserved in a unique 16th-century manuscript in the archives of the Towneleys, a Catholic family in Lancashire. The 32 plays in the Towneley manuscript, which is now at The Huntington Library in California, come from different periods, even different centuries and different towns. The plays in the manuscript are arranged by subject, from the Creation through the Nativity to Judgment Day."
For additional background information on The Second Shepherds' Play and the mystery play tradition, visit www.folger.edu/ssp.
In addition, the Folger has produced a series of three informative and entertaining podcasts in conjunction with The Second Shepherds' Play, offering audio to enrich the experience of the performance. Visit www.folger.edu/podcasts/shepherds to download the programs.