Again and again, it seems, Christmas brings us face to face with the same old question. Where does a rabidly materialistic society like our own get off celebrating the man who taught poverty by reveling in a superfluity of consumer goods? Perhaps they didn’t juggle exactly the same paradox, but the monks of 12th century England labored over the same vexing question of how best to reconcile Christian piety with the pull of earthly delights.
In their 12th century St. Nicholas plays, brought to life this past weekend by director Elizabeth St. John Villard as part of the Island Theatre Workshop’s Miracles at Christmas and performed at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Edgartown, the tension between moral and material concerns is a constant motif.
“Oh woe is me, the joys of life have fled. When money leaves, toil and misery comes instead!” intoned a be-wimpled Joyce Maxner, playing the mother in St. Nicholas and the Virgin. Newly impoverished, the mother implores her daughter to sell her “beauty” in order to save them both from destitution. The daughter refuses, imploring her mother to think on their immortal souls before the things of this life. No sooner has she finished speaking than St. Nicholas, played by a gold-clad Brad Austin, arrives to chuck a bag of gold into the house, saving them from the whole conundrum. He is followed shortly by a wealthy suitor who asks the daughter’s hand in marriage.
The deus ex machina seems outdated, but the struggle between morals and money is current. In the next play Kevin Ryan plays Barbarus, hamming up his comical devastation at his loss of wealth to bashful audience members in the pews. Having entrusted his fortune to a statue of St. Nicholas for safekeeping while he goes away on a journey, Barbarus returns to find his gold stolen, so he whips and berates St. Nicholas. The statue of St. Nicholas comes alive and goes to reason with the thieves who stole the fortune. Shocked into obedience, they give up the goods, and a likewise stunned Barbarus exclaims, “My soul hath gained new wealth.”
In the third play, St. Nicholas and the Students, a mother and daughter accept three itinerant students into their home for the night only to murder them for their gold. When St. Nicholas arrives asking for a night’s lodging they hastily drape the corpses with sheets but cannot escape St. Nick who asks, grotesque, to be served meat — for has not fresh meat, he asks, been slayed that night? In an inscrutable double-move, he then raises the students from the dead and demands that mother and daughter repent and see the grave error of their ways.
As St. Nicholas winds his way through the plays doling out his morally loaded gifts, we might expect the formula to get stale. But it doesn’t, and this is largely because the plays are superbly funny. It’s partly the bawdy, worldly sensibility that underlies their seeming piety. The plays were originally written and performed as a way to break up the monotony of monastic existence, and St. Nicholas and the Students was penned by a monk who wrote under the apt pseudonym Hilarius. It’s also partly their wonderfully bizarre sensibility, cast in a totally different dramatic framework than our standard modern set of narrative crests and troughs.
Then of course there was Joyce Maxner, with her mastery of slapstick physical comedy and Abigail Southard acting as her sweetness-and-light foil. Together the team creates a force directly from the buoyant, flagrant 12th century. Villard made sure to permit the audience to laugh from the get go: “Don’t think that you can’t laugh because you are in a church.”
A modern western Christmas directs its historical attentions towards Western Europe in the high middle ages more than, arguably, the first century Roman Palestine that saw Christ’s birth. If the St. Nicholas plays offered a chance to feel the gulf that separates the medieval sensibility from our own, the medieval carols directed by Stephanie Burke were a reminder of the timeless endurance of the period’s music.
The carols were accompanied by Jan Hyer, cello, Stephanie Burke, keyboard, and Matt Pelikan (also adorable in the role of the incredibly well-timed suitor) on recorder. Amy Fligor and Sheila McHugh danced together to a Coventry Carol, sung by Kevin Ryan, weaving their bodies into a lively physical interpretation of the Christmastime standard.
Abigail Southard performed O Holy Night and I Wonder as I Wander in her pure, penetrating soprano. The two songs hung in the dim church, amber pendants, scattering little gasps and sighs before them.
Miracles at Christmas will be performed tonight at 7:30 p.m. at St. Andrew’s Church on North Summer street in Edgartown. Donations at the door.