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Twelfth century musical drama recounting Christ's birth comes to Monastery

Performers, from left, Roark Miller, Philip Sasse, and Kevin Streiter play the roles of the Magi in "The Play of Herod."

Performers, from left, Roark Miller, Philip Sasse, and Kevin Streiter play the roles of the Magi in "The Play of Herod."

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Steve Lindsley as Joseph and Anna Kelly as Mary perform in "The Play of Herod."

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"Play of Herod" actors, from left, John Yntema and Ian Kincaid as the Scribes, Bart Gilleland as King Herod, and James Robinson as the Armiger, perform a scene from the 12th century musical drama.

Melding the traditional Christmas story of the shepherds and magi traveling to witness the birth of the baby Jesus with the panic King Herod experienced when a potential threat to his throne is born, the Atlanta Camerata Theater's "The Play of Herod" has been a holiday favorite of metro audiences for some 40 years.

The 12th century musical drama will be staged three times in 2012, twice at St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church in DeKalb County and again at 7 p.m. Dec. 9 at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers.

Brother Callistus Crichlow said "Herod" was first performed at the Monastery in the 1980s and returned in 2009. He added that the last time "Herod" was in Conyers, he didn't have a chance to watch much of it, but he won't make the same mistake twice.

"Being the event planner here, I'm kind of busy on the night of a concert or performance, shuffling people and taking tickets," he said. "Because I was so busy, I only sat down for about 10 minutes to watch, and I've got to say I was really blown away, so much so that I'm going to make sure that I sit from the very beginning to the very end. It's a moving musical drama and is really well done. It's the only thing they do and they do it so well."

In an interview on www.HerodPlay.com, director Kelly Morris said the original performances of "Herod" were held in 1974 at his own Kelly's Seed & Feed Theatre, which opened in 1973 and was known for staging the contemporary plays of Sam Shepard, Paul Foster, Ken Bernard and Tom Cullen.

"I wanted to do something special for Christmas in 1974," said Morris. "The woman who was leading our just-beginning chorus (now Atlanta Schola Cantorum) suggested 'The Play of Herod' and lent me the records of Noah Greenberg's New York Pro Musica production from 1964. At this point, I knew nothing about Early Music.

"The response to that first performance was wonderful. I can't emphasize enough what an unusual event it was -- in the repertory of the theatre and in the cultural life of Atlanta; an 800-year-old liturgical music drama sung in Latin by the same people who were identified with profane contemporary comedies. It was quite surprising."

Morris' theater closed in 1979, but he continued to direct "Herod" for another 20 years before its final performance.

"I thought the show was getting tired," said Morris. "There were so many performers who had been in the play for more than 10 years -- several for more than 20 years -- that we all needed a chance to stop. Then, in 2004, (music director) Kevin (Culver) and I decided to revive the production."

Brother Callistus said he felt the Monastery's Abbey Church provided an excellent setting for "Herod."

"We're looking forward to it," he said.

"It's well-suited to the venue, the way the Monastery is set up. This play incorporates period musical instruments and is almost interactive. Some of it is done in the aisles, with a long procession of costumed people, walking slowly and solemnly, with everybody in perfect timing with a candle in their hands. The procession goes from the back of the church to the stage area, with a very haunting symphonic-type of music. I'm used to seeing choral groups, but this is a performance where the drama unfolds in front of you."

Morris pointed to two reasons why he felt "Herod" had been such a longtime holiday favorite among Atlanta audiences.

"We first presented 'The Play of Herod' as a thank-you present -- a Christmas gift -- to the audience that had supported Kelly's Seed & Feed Theatre," he said.

"The evening had a sense of family celebration -- a spectacle followed by a cider-cookies-carols party. People brought their kids when they were old enough; the kids later brought dates. There was a feeling of reunion among the cast members and among the audience that grew richer as the years rolled by. I think there still is.

"Secondly, the work itself is remarkable. It's one of the beginning points of Western drama. Think of it -- a 12th-century play sung in Latin. It is familiar -- everybody knows everything that happens in it -- the angels announcing the birth, the adoration of the shepherds and the Magi, the raging King Herod, the flight to Egypt, the slaying of the Innocents.

"And yet in this strange timeless form of storytelling, these wondrous happenings you already know seem a bit unfamiliar.

"Everything about the stagecraft and the music is straightforward, but clearly ancient, a different world, a legend, a dream. The pleasure of surrendering to this old, old story is very deep. There is nothing quite like it."

Brother Callistus added that the Monastery was so excited to bring "Herod" back that they were able to persuade the Atlanta Boy Choir to move its annual Christmas concert back a week.

"The Boy Choir will be here on Dec. 15, the following Saturday after 'Herod," said Callistus. "That happens every year -- that's not going anywhere. In order to get the 'Herod' performance here, we had to move the Boy Choir to the next week. We usually have the Boy Choir here the first Saturday of December, but they're only doing two performances in Atlanta, so I was able to get them out here on Sunday. We knew a year ago this was going to happen, so we told the Boy Choir the date we had available."

Atlanta Camerata Theater asks that patrons refrain from bringing babies or children who cannot sit quietly for an hour and adds that once the performance begins, there will be no late seating.

"The doors open at 6:30 and the performance begins at 7 p.m.," said Brother Callistus. "We ask that no young children who can't sit still attend and we want people to know that due to the nature of the play, no one will be seated after the performance begins. Once they start, that's it."

Tickets for "The Play of Herod" are $20 for general admission and $15 for seniors and students with ID. Tickets can be purchased through www.trappist.net/concert or at the Monastery Gift Store.

Chris Starrs is a freelance writer based in Athens.