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By Tristan Lejeune

If you love Christmas as much as I do (and, unless your last name is Claus, you probably don’t), it’s tough to pick your favorite part. There’s the time spent with family and friends, of course, the food and the parties, the games, the decorations, the old movies…

But one of the very best parts of the yuletide season has be the music; there are about 4,000 Christmas carols and only seven or eight of them suck. You won’t recognize too many of the melodies in Folger’s revival of its 2007 The Second Shepherd’s Play, going on now until Dec. 21, but you will wish there was a cast album available in the lobby.

A medieval mystery play that lands, after much ado, at the Nativity, Second Shepherd gives over a full 50 percent of its run time to carols and tunes from the 16th century and earlier. It is time well spent. Musicians Robert Eisenstein, Brian Kay and Daniel Meyers pick up and put down strings, woodwinds and percussion instruments, while the audience coos and murmurs like appreciate doves. There’s a reason this trio comes last in the curtain call.

In between the largely instrumental songs, we get scenes of three shepherds who are, you guessed it, abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. Coll (Louis E. Davis) laments, in antiquated terms, income inequality; Gib (Matthew R. Wilson) is forever trying to escape his wife; and Daw (Megan Graves), their apprentice, is the most on-the-ball. This comes in handy when they have to deal with a wily sheep thief (Ryan Sellers) and his wife (Tonya Beckman).

Shenanigans ensue, of the type sure to please a medieval audience half drunk on wassail. All five lead actors handle the farce well, but Shakespeare this is not — don’t expect fine poetry in the dialogue. Directed and adapted by Mary Hall Surface, the show makes do with what it has. Disguising a stolen ewe as a babe in swaddling clothes in a crib is a pretty clever crèche parody, but hark the herald, midway through Act II there’s an angel to be heard on high with a new assignment. To Bethlehem with thee, good shepherds!

Fun is had with puppets; technical skills are shown off in costume. The Folger Shakespeare Library’s stately wooden performance space has been given a ring of holly and a golden glow, and this is a great way to spend a December evening. Bonus points for the hot cider at intermission. The five main actors all land good punchlines, but even they seem to realize how lucky they are when the mandolins are plucked or the silver bells rung.

Folger ended last year on a similarly musical high note: Its moving, rich Pericles got a lot of mileage out of the house band. Second Shepherd’s Play is not as visual stunning as that production, but it’s even more aurally transportive. This is one theatre that knows it must delight the ear as well as the eye.

The play, really, is a lot like Christmas — warm and festive, though undeniably Christian. And the music is the best part.

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