Review: ‘The Second Shepherds’ Play’ at The Folger Theatre

Well beyond just comfort and joy, The Folger’s production of The Second Shepherds’ Playa medieval English mystery about the ultimate power of faith to redeem and liberate, is the right play at the right time for DC area audiences. This is the second appearance of The Second Shepherds’ Play at the Folger; it first appeared to critical acclaim in 2007.

Matthew R. Wilson (left), Megan Graves, and Louis E. Davis sing along to a medieval English tune played by musicians Robert Eisenstein, Daniel Meyers, and Brian Kay. Photo by Brittany Diliberto.
Matthew R. Wilson (left), Megan Graves, and Louis E. Davis sing along to a medieval English tune played by musicians Robert Eisenstein, Daniel Meyers, and Brian Kay. Photo by Brittany Diliberto.

With a blissfully earthy touch that flows effortlessly into an abundant spiritual realm, Director Mary Hall Surface easily meets one of her objectives:

Let us celebrate the light that can pierce the darkness and find in the warm heart of this midwinter’s drama.

As an added blessing for the production, about two-dozen songs from the 14th, 15th, and early 16th centuries are performed splendidly by three members of the Folger Consort.

The Second Shepherds’ Play does rich justice to Robert Eisenstein’s program note that “old does not mean inferior or less sophisticated.” Eisenstein is the music director for The Second Shepherds’ Play as well as Co-Artistic Director of the Folger Consort. During the play, Eisenstein performs on violin and other string instruments, while musicians Brian Kay and Daniel Meyers play medieval instruments including the lute, a small harp, percussion, and even an early saxophone.

What is The Second Shepherds’ Play about? It has three distinct parts. It begins as a howling complaint session by three salt-of-the earth shepherds. The three are out working in the gloom of a wet cold night tending to their flocks seeking the company of like-minded men. They are Coll – who desires with all his heart to come out of the “storm and tempest” Coll is played with a folksy, down-home, far from mellow attitude by Louis E. Davis. Then there is Gib who shouts out about his miserable marriage and rails about the rich and powerful. Gib is played by Matthew R. Wilson with an irascible, plaintive outlook. Finally, there is Daw played by an engaging, effervescent, wide-eyed Megan Graves. Together their lot seems a meager one. But together they find a conjure a more peaceful life with God who can “turn all to good.”

The second part has at its focus the comic absurdity of sheep thievery. Out of nowhere comes Mak to join the three shepherds. Ryan Sellers plays Mak as a convincing, cagey trickster out to make mischief and take off with a sheep to feed his starving family. (The sheep is played by a movable fake sheep often manipulated about the stage by a baa-ing Malinda Kathleen Reese).

To find the missing sheep, the three shepherds interact with delightful diminutive puppets, designed by Aaron Cromie, in several hilarious stage chases. The chases lead to Mak’s wife Gill. Gill is the comic heart of the Folger production with Tonya Beckman as a cunning, ferocious jester full of facial language that needs no spoken words to interpret them. ‘The word’cunning’ is an understatement for Beckman’s Gil.

Emily Noël appears as an Angel. Photo by Brittany Diliberto.
Emily Noël appears as an Angel. Photo by Brittany Diliberto.

Then comes the third and the most spiritually revelatory experience for me of this production. There is a totally breathtaking theatrical moment as an Angel appears (the elegant, splendid soprano Emily Noel) to speak and sing a prophecy. This was a similar moment like the emotional experience I had when I witnessed the Angel appear in a production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America.

The set by Tony Cisek is a minimal whisper of easily movable set pieces and props like a spinning wheel to present a sense of a time long ago. When the Angel mysteriously appears on-high, Andrew Cissna’s lighting design is a marvel of deception. The cast and musician costumes are “rough” homespun garments with little adornment, as devised by Adalia Tonneyck.

There is just so much earthy joyfulness and spiritual wonder packed into the fine production of The Second Shepherds’ Play. The cast and the musicians are right there ”in the moment” throughout the production.

The Second Shepherds’ Play is a tiny wrapped Christmas package that explodes into an unexpected large size when it’s opened. It is a prize and a treasure. It will bring smiles and knowing nods to those open to it. We need The Second Shepherds’ Play now more than ever. 

Running Time: 90 minutes, plus a 15-minute intermission.

The Second Shepherds’ Play plays through December 21, 2016, at The Folger Theatre – 201 East Capitol Street, SE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 544-7077, or purchase them online.

‘Magic Time!’ ‘The Second Shepherds’ Play’ at The Folger Theatre by John Stoltenberg.

Review: ‘The Second Shepherds’ Play’ at The Folger Theatre by David Siegel.


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