“A Winter Solstice Celebration”

December 7, 2011

“A Winter’s Solstice Celebration”
One of the most festive holiday celebrations around, “A Winter’s Solstice Celebration,” is sure to put anyone in a festive, holiday mood. Filled with stirring music, good humor, and a bit of medieval history, the show is a collection of songs, poetry, skits, and short plays selected by director Carol McManus of Sandwich. The elements of the show are seamlessly interwoven, the 24 cast members gracefully choreographed by Michele Colley. Patti Anderson is music director. This very satisfying production is at the Cotuit Center for the Arts through December 18.

Some of the Solstice cast, clockwise from upper left: Peter Cook, Cynthia Cook, Alex Cook, Robert Bock, Rebecca Hill, and Kaitlin Cook. Josh Cox in the center. Photo by Daniel Fontneau, Cotuit Center for the Arts.

The show is enhanced further by its unique treatment of intermission, which was an unexpected pleasure. Audience members are invited to bring their own feasts to this medieval celebration and they are seated at long tables rather than in rows of chairs. At last Friday’s production, the start of intermission signaled the opening of often elaborate picnic dinners and community festivities, in the manner of a medieval solstice celebration. People were congenial and good-humored, sharing food and conversation. The cast joined in, offering cider and shortbread cookies to all. Specially themed cocktails may be purchased before the show and during intermission.

A very festive, feasting intermission! Photo by David Kuehn, Cotuit Center for the Arts.

There is a splendid member art exhibition in the gallery to browse during intermission, for any who choose not to participate in the feast, but the feasting adds to the holiday spirit and the community spirit of the production.

Ms. McManus has long been a student of medieval theater and has sought to make this evening authentic and educational, as well as fun and community-spirited. The solstice celebration marks the passage of the shortest day of the year and welcomes the lengthening of the days and the shortening of the hours of darkness. People “caroled and feasted and gave thanks and hoped for peace,” we were told.

The show opens in darkness, as singers with candles softly begin with “In the Bleak Midwinter.” With each song or poem, the light brightens, and so does the mood. The singers move through the hall, sometimes off-stage, sometimes on stage, sometimes clustered in small groups. It all flows harmoniously.

Sprinkled in among the carols and poems are four short plays, three authentic medieval plays, and one “in the spirit of medieval play,” a very humorous take on Cinderella. The first play, “The Fall of Man,” tells the story of Adam and Eve. Michele Colley is the worm, or serpent, who tempts Eve to take a bite of the forbidden apple. Her costume, designed by Claude Danner, is long and serpentine, but even better is Ms. Colley’s ability to slither across the stage, coaxing, manipulating, and deceiving poor Eve. Shielding the snake is a uncredited cast member in a magnificent sculptural tree costume designed by Kahren Dowcett. It was so impressive that one could not help but wish that the tree had a larger role.

Robert Bock provides an introduction to “The Fall of Man.” Kiley Donovan plays Eve and Bobby Price is Adam. Garry Mitchell is God, his booming voice lending authority, and Kaitlin Cook is the angel who tells them to leave the Garden of Eden.

“Bar the Door” recounts the unintended impacts of a squabble between a husband and wife. It features Meredith Richter as narrator, Mr. Mitchell as the husband, Liz Brown as the wife, and the father-son team of Peter and Alex Cook as thieves who enter their home. It is an amusing little piece, not all that distant from contemporary comedy. Ms. McManus follows it with a song, “Drink to Me Only,” by Mr. Mitchell and Ms. Brown, a sweet affirmation of their characters’ love for each other.

“The Second Shepherds’ Play” is described as the first play written from imagination, rather than as a recounting of a story in the Bible for the purpose of elucidating the illiterate peasantry of the tales and lessons in the Bible. It begins, however, with a tale of three shepherds (Robert Bock, Peter Cook, and young Josh Cox of Sandwich) on a cold winter night, complaining about the weather, marriage and the dark. Along comes Mak (Paul Fendler) who steals a sheep (whose baas are sure to amuse) and brings it home to his wife, Jill (Cynthia Cook), while the shepherds try to find their lost sheep.

After the shepherds sleep, the scene shifts to Bethlehem, where, guided by two angels (Kinsale Steedman and Kaitlin Cook) they bring their gifts to the baby Jesus, and the scene melts into a beautiful a cappella rendering by the ensemble of “Lo, How A Rose.”

“Cinderella” is presented as a dramatic reading by miscast actors who are not quite ready to perform. The fairy godmother (Patti Anderson), for instance, refers to the “fairy couch” before being corrected to say “fairy coach,” and Cinderella has a cold. Lisa Jo Rudy is terrific as a comic Cinderella, supported by real-life young sisters Celeste Levine and Vivian Levine of Sandwich as her cruel stepsisters. They are adorable.

Alex Cook plays the Prince, who, as he and Cinderella, begin their happily-ever-after, is immediately pursued by multiple young women in “The Eriskay Love Lilt,” a lyrical, Scottish traditional tune. These and other transitions are very well done, and the selection of ancient carols, like “Lord of the Dance,” “Coventry Carol,” and “The Boar’s Head Carol” (complete with a sculpted boar’s head) is inspired.

Several poems are recited. Garry Mitchell reads “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” (“Come live with me and be my love”) with warm intensity, winning the approval of his love, who, with a careless shrug and a smile, joins him at the end of the poem. Ms. Rudy becomes a spiteful troll in “The Faerie Revels” by John Lyly. Susan Cannavo tells an atypical story of a princess and a dragon in “The Princess, the Knight, and the Dragon.”

Musicians provided a gentle accompaniment: Donna Albert on recorder, Drew Anderson on guitar and percussion, Patti Anderson on keyboards and Kathy Spirtes on hammered dulcimer.

Medieval costumes were designed by Cindy Parker, and the Barnstable Comedy Club and Eva Broderson of the no longer active Mostly Medieval Carolers of Sandwich also provided costumes. L. Michelle Law designed the set, and Erin Trainor designed the lighting.

There is much more, but go see it for yourself. “A Winter’s Solstice Celebration” continues Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 7 PM and Sunday at 1 PM. Tickets are $20, $18 for seniors, $15 for members, and $10 for students. Tickets may be purchased at http://www.cotuitarts.org or by calling 508-428-0669.

The audience is invited to bring their own dinner to enjoy during the festivities. Cider and sweets will be provided. Audience members may order a gourmet medieval picnic for two in advance. Contact the Cotuit Center for the Arts for additional information or to order dinner.

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