Life in Europe’s Middle Ages was short and brutish: an epoch of miserable cold beset by plague, a time when to be an outcast meant that you risked being burned at the stake and people felt so guilty at having been born that they wore hair shirts and traveled from town to town whipping themselves (maybe I’ve watched The Seventh Seal once too often). On the other hand, it was also a time when artisan laborers found protection and fulfillment through the guilds, the beginnings of a more egalitarian society, and religious faith, the common denominator of life, was celebrated through the building of great cathedrals.
Nor, apparently, did the culture lack a sense of humor – a side that will be resurrected in the upcoming week at SUNY-New Paltz with the performance of the comedic Medieval play Fat Ram. It’s a title that Monty Python or Mel Brooks might have dreamt up; and indeed, wackiness, rather than dry academism, characterizes this production right from the beginning, with a pageant wagon, stocked with Muppets as well as actors and a pageant master (played by James Schiffer, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences) meeting up with the Augie, the campus’ geese-chasing border collie, outside the Parker Theatre.
The drama actually consists of two plays dating back to the 15th century. Doubting Joseph recounts Joseph’s distress and jealousy at finding his wife pregnant, given that the marriage is still unconsummated, and Mary’s explanation that a visiting angel told her that God was the father. The audience then moves into the Theatre for the second work, The Second Shepherd’s Play, which tells the story of a night spent on the moor by three shepherds, who discover a sheep thief, rescue a kidnapped, misused ram and subsequently journey to the Holy Land in search of mankind’s savior. Actors interact with puppets, which include the fat ram, an enormous camel and a flying angel.
The production itself embodies the Medieval communal spirit, with professors and students from various departments contributing: For example, Daniel Kempton, a Medieval scholar in the Department of English, translated the text, while student Zac Ballis designed the set and Andrea Varga, assistant professor in the Department of Theatre Arts and her student Danielle Jordan designed the costumes. The puppets and Muppets were designed by SUNY-New Paltz Art students. Joel Evans, assistant professor in the Department of Music, served as music consultant, and Connie Rotunda, a Theatre Arts assistant professor, was the music coach. Broadway actor Anika Larsen – she starred as Kate Monster in Avenue Q – served as general consultant.
The play will be performed November 30 and December 1 through 3 at 8 p.m. and December 3 and 4 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $18 reserved general admission, $16 reserved for seniors, SUNY-New Paltz faculty and staff and non-SUNY-New Paltz students and $9 for SUNY-New Paltz students. Tickets can be purchased by calling (845) 257-3880 or online at https://www.newpaltz.edu/theatre.