Photo by Brian Giandelone
The dramatic magnificence of the abbey church provides the perfect backdrop for the upcoming medieval telling of the Christmas story by Atlanta's Camerata Theatre in their production of "The Play of Herod," which takes stage next weekend at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit.
One of the longest-running Christmas traditions in Atlanta, "The Play of Herod" has entertained audiences since its debut in 1974 and will offer a unique holiday experience for the Conyers area during its performance at 7 p.m. Dec. 13.
It will be a "magical evening," according to the monastery's Brother Callistus, as the production combines two 12th century manuscripts from the Benedictine monastery of St. Benoit-sur-Loire near Fleury. "The Play of Herod" is a liturgical music-drama, thought to be the earliest form of medieval drama and taken from the manuscripts found in the Benedictine monastery in France where it is believed to be among the earliest dramatic works in the Christian era.
"The Play of Herod" is taken from two works found in "The Fleury Playbook," which is part of a composite volume of sermons, biblical texts, liturgical dramas and hymns now in the Municipal Library of Orleans in central France. This collection of 10 religious plays is named after the Roman town of Fleury, which is now known as St. Benoit-sur-Loire and where it was kept at the Abbey of St. Benoit until the dispersal of much of the monastic library during the anticlerical aftermath of the French Revolution.
All the plays are set to music reminiscent of the plainsong of the liturgy from which these plays most likely evolved. The plays were first probably performed in the church by the clergy and choir. It is thought this manuscript was compiled around 1200 A.D. and the repertoire of the playbook is often called medieval opera.
The Atlanta Camerata production combines two plays, "The Play of Herod" and "The Slaying of the Innocents" with the score prepared by Noah Greenberg in 1963 for the New York Pro Musica. It has been edited by Kevin Culver.
The 2009 cast is led by Butch Spivey as King Herod. A U.S. administrative law judge, Spivey has performed the title role in "The Play of King Herod" since it began in 1974. He has appeared locally with the Atlanta Symphony, the Atlanta Ballet, Georgia Opera and Shoestring Opera and has performed across the U.S., Europe, Asia and Mexico. A Vietnam War veteran, Spivey directed choirs in Vietnam and Fort Bragg, N.C., while serving in the Army Medical Service Corps.
James Robinson will perform the role of Herod's son and David Johnson is the archangel. Other area actors portray the magi, shepherds, midwives, Herod's court, angels and innocents, and Mary and Joseph. The play is accompanied by a number of period-appropriate instruments with a quartet of musicians led by Culver on percussion. "Herod's" director since the play's Atlanta debut in 1974 is Kelly Morris.
"The Play of Herod," which was performed at the monastery in the 1980s, will return for the first time since the production was revived in 2004.
"This will be our first time back at the monastery since we began again," Morris said. "The music always seems like it's coming home when we are at the monastery. It has the kind of acoustic space the music was meant for."
Morris, who founded Kelly's Seed & Feed Theatre in a warehouse near Atlanta City Hall in 1973, mostly produced contemporary comic plays of "epic scale," he said, using the works of Sam Shepard, Paul Foster, Ken Bernard and the group's own playwright, Tom Cullen.
Morris said he wanted to do something special for Christmas in 1974. The woman who was leading the group's chorus suggested "The Play of Herod" and let Morris borrow her records of Noah Greenberg's New York Pro Musica production from 1964. Morris said response to the first performance of "The Play of Herod" in Atlanta was "wonderful" and the play became a Christmas tradition, even after Kelly's Seed & Feed Theatre closed in 1979.
The play continued each December at Nexus Theater and then at Trinity United Methodist Church where it completed its first quarter-century run to regularly sold-out performances.
Morris said the 1999 production was going to be the last. Many performers had been with the production for 20 years. They all took a break and in 2004, Culver, the music director and Morris decided to revive the production. Now a new generation is treated to the unique play, which Morris says offers a "different world, a legend, a dream."
With an extensive resume as a director, singer and theater president, Morris has also been head of publications for the High Museum of Art in Atlanta since 1976. Culver, the music director for "The Play of Herod," is the choir master of the Cathedral of Christ the King in Atlanta. In 1976, he co-founded the Atlanta Singers, which he led for 15 years. In 2003, Culver co-created the Archdiocesan Festival Choir of Atlanta.
In the Atlanta Camerata Theatre production, the world of Herod is "dreamlike, shadowy and stark." The Christmas story unfolds in a "medieval ceremony of simple gestures and ancient, haunting melodies." "The Play of Herod" is sung in Latin with English translations projected above the action.
Reservations for "The Play of Herod" are required and tickets may be ordered at www.tappist.net, at the abbey gift store or by calling 800-592-5203. General admission tickets are $20 and proceeds will benefit the monastery's food bank. The audience is invited to join the cast for a reception following the play. Due to the nature of the play, there will be no late seating.