With the holiday season underway, numerous time-honored tales will be gracing local stages. Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," originally written in 1843, is typically the oldest and most popular of them.
This year, though, the Long Beach Shakespeare Company has reached back farther for their offering of holiday cheer, even before their namesake.
"The Wakefield Second Shepherds' Play," playing now through Dec. 17, dates to medieval times. It is believed to have first been performed in 1500, pre-dating Shakespeare by nearly a century. It is a mystery play, a genre that drew largely from the Bible and other Christian sources. Most mystery play authors are unknown, but Wakefield is a geographic designation assigned to some of these works.
This "Shepherds' Play" culminates in a retelling of Christ's birth in the Nativity. First, however, comes a quaint story about three shepherds trying to regain one of their lambs. The lamb has been stolen by a poor, comically-wicked married couple who disguise it as their own baby. Taking place on the outskirts of Bethlehem, these characters' plight pre-figures the climactic, overtly religious event. The technique isn't unlike a modern-day preacher using a funny story to prepare listeners for his or her ultimately inspirational message.
While told in rhyme, the language isn't as polished in Wakefield works as Shakespeare and other renaissance writers would later develop it. It is written in the language of the peasantry of the time, as mystery plays were frequently performed in town squares and on street corners rather than formal theaters. This makes the current production hard to understand at times, although the concerns conveyed through the dialogue are as pertinent today as 500 years ago: marital woes, struggling to make a decent living, friendship, ethics and faith.
Brandon Alexander Cutts directs with an obvious understanding of the period and language. His staging is necessarily simple, with an adorable stuffed sheep figuring in the mix. Six players serve a variety of roles. In addition to the shepherds and married couple, there are angels and Roman soldiers as well as Mary and Joseph. All perform admirably but Sarah Hoeven is the production's liveliest, most purely entertaining player in her role as Gill, the sheep-thief's wife. Young Garret Martinez also makes an impression as the most junior of the shepherds.
No, it isn't "A Christmas Carol" or "The Nutcracker," but "The Wakefield Second Shepherds' Play" is a unique holiday event that is rarely performed locally. Younger theater goers will enjoy the comedy in the piece as well as the employment of several classic Christmas carols. For tickets, visit lbshakespeare.org or call (562) 997-1494.
On a sad but related note, this company's longtime artistic director, Helen Borgers, passed away on Nov. 12. I didn't have the pleasure of knowing Helen for as long as many in the Long Beach community did. Her decades as a teacher, jazz afficionado and DJ at KJZZ in addition to her time with the Shakespeare Company endeared her to thousands of people, perhaps more. She was a still youthful 60 when she died of complications following a surgery.
Helen was welcoming and gracious to me these past two years since I began writing for the Gazette, for which I will always be grateful. She was certainly more of a Shakespeare expert than I am, and she taught me much in that brief time through her lovingly-staged productions and excellent Director's Notes in each show's program. The Long Beach arts scene is undoubtedly more diverse and vibrant thanks to Helen. She will be greatly missed.