Yesterday evening we had our first read-through of the Second Shepherd’s Play (2SP) for this year. I remembered why I love this show so very much. It may, in fact, be one of my favorite theater things I’ve ever done. Why, you ask? Well…
First there’s the language. I remembered yesterday, hearing the other actors read it for the first time through, that this language is hard. It’s medieval, and the entire show is in verse. It can be hard to understand, and some of the words and phrases don’t really flow off the tongue, at least at first. Last year I had to work really hard on understanding all my lines and communicating the meaning of them, not to mention getting the text in my mouth so I didn’t trip over it. But I was surprised yesterday by how much I remembered, and once you get it in your tongue, it does flow (or at least most of it does). It’s actually a beautifully written play—just in language that is pretty archaic. But I think challenging language is actually more enjoyable and rewarding for both the actors and the audience in the end. (I guess that’s why I like to perform Shakespeare, his contemporaries, and also OPERA. You know, like in Italian. And German. And French.)
Secondly, I think this is possibly the funniest Christmas play of any kind that I have ever seen or heard about. I realize that’s a pretty bold claim to make, but I’ve rarely laughed so much in 45 minutes of theater. Christmas plays are usually so predictable—everyone knows what’s going to happen. This one is not. For one thing, there is the general absurdity of the entire story (which I summarized in my previous post). It’s just silly. Then there are the anachronisms. Although we are supposed to be in Israel before the birth of Christ, and the shepherds of the title are the ones to whom the angel appeared to announce Jesus’ birth, everyone in the show makes continuous references to Catholicism. As in, hardly a stanza of the play goes by without someone making an exclamation that refers to Jesus’ death, or Mary, or one of the Catholic saints. It’s constant. At one point a shepherd says, “I dreamed we were in England!” (Which is funny, of course, because the shepherds are supposed to be in Palestine, but the play was originally performed in England during Advent.) So it’s not really a play about the shepherds who first greeted Christ. It’s about how the shepherds might have reacted if Christ had been born to medieval England, at least if medieval England were already Catholic when He was born…time machine, anyone? But I wonder whether the Catholic references are deliberately funny anachronisms, or whether references to Mary, Jesus, and the saints were just such a normal part of speech at the time that it only made sense for the shepherds to talk that way. Or maybe general education was really so poor that most people didn’t know enough history to recognize the incongruity of swearing by St. Steven when he wouldn’t exist yet for hundreds of years. I hope our modern audiences will recognize it, but many of the references are so archaic that not many people know them unless they are medieval scholars.
The third reason I love this play is that it’s really a cartoon. I have a big personality, and I love to overact. This is why I enjoy theater for children: it’s ok to overact. In fact, you pretty much can’t be too ridiculous. This is also true of 2SP. Last year I deliberately modeled my character, Mac, after Wile E. Coyote. In yesterday’s rehearsal I was inspired to add an Evil Villain Laugh…once, twice, thrice, maybe four or five times. I warned Kelly, our director, that I’ll probably keep adding it to more moments in the show until she orders me to stop. We also decided last night that the third and second shepherd will be, respectively, Little Bo Peep and a PIRATE. Yes, that’s right: a Pirate Shepherd. It probably won’t make sense until he says his very last line of the show…then you’ll say, Oh, of course he’s a pirate!.
Curious yet? I mean, how many times in your life have you seen a Pirate Shepherd robbed by Wile E. Coyote? Maybe Tony will be sorry he’s passed on the torch of directing this show when he sees what a crazy cartoon we’re making of it. But I think it will be a lot of fun, for us and for everyone who comes to see it.