Le Jeu de Saint Nicolas

At the Boylston Hall Auditorium, tonight and Sunday afternoon.

A review of such a joyous and holy work as Le Jeu de Saint Nicolas would be a desecration. So I shall merely annotate the program notes, a copy of which is presented free to every paying customer.

"The pagan Realm is invaded by Crusaders. These last are happily exterminated, excepting a worthy Christian elder. Him, and his image of Saint Nicholas, the King puts to the test: the image must guard the royal treasure. But--three thieves appear, and make short work of the king's coffers. Alack, the elder is to be mishandled! Saint Nicholas makes haste, to convince the thieves of their error. The treasure is returned, doubled. All the pagans are converted. Praises are sung."

Jean Bodel, who wrote the play in about 1200 (in Medieval French, in octosyllabic lines, in rhymed couplets, in Arras, and, whenever he could afford the wine of his native Arras, in a state of intoxication) robbed the traditional Miracle Play of any seriousness it may have had. His motto was: Christianity can be Fun. He inverted the structure of the Miracle Play, placing the emphasis on the pagans and the thieves, giving the Christians at most a tenth of the lines. And before and after the beheading, torture, crucifixion, or any other horrific maltreatment of the Christian Crusaders, Bodel has a sweetly smiling Angel descend to the stage to tell them about the better life to which they are, forthwith, going.

To revert once again to the program notes, "Jacques Bersani and T. Morris rendered into almost modern French, pretty much metrical" the original version of the play, and very elegant and amusing almost metrical modern French it is. They kept the octosyllabic line, the often complicated rhyme scheme, and, most important, the delightfully naive ironies and anachorisms of the original. And even I, who barely understood French 20 lectures, could make out nearly every line. The lines that I didn't understand all came in a few tire-some and unnecessary scenes, full of argot about crap shooting and in-group references to the towns around Arras, which only the natives could understand. These scenes, despite some fine comic acting, bog down the middle of the play, and should have been cut.

Though the play was probably first given in a chapel, its tone is better suited to a tavern. Almost any place would have been better than Boylston Hall; my own choice would have been Cronin's. But Ted Morris, who directed the play (the program notes modestly proclaim, "The unnatural stiffness of the occasion is Ted Morris's fault"), Yoshi Shimizu, who made "all the sights for sure eyes" (i.e. the set, the costumes, and the props), and Bill Wilder, who composed "the heard melodies" transformed each of the obstacles which nature had put in their way into an advantage. The result was an effortless and delightful stylization.


Morris used Boylston's shallow stage to perfection. He kept the actors moving in a fluid and carefully planned ballet. Every time a step was taken, an arm raised, an eyebrow lifted, one caught a glimpse of the puppeteer behind the scenes. The balance between the medieval and the modern was made most strongly by Bill Wilder's ingenious score, which shifted gracefully from twelfth century ars antiqua to the twentieth century twelve tone scale. Shimizu's set was a black curtain whose space was miraculously filled with a few flowing white splotches; his props were colored cardboard; and even his costumes were abstractions of Medieval clothing. Chris Avery and Robert Hoguet used the simplest imaginable lighting patterns, and somehow it all worked. Unbridled enthusiasm, which the best amateur productions usually boast as their highest achievement, here gave way to something much finer, style. Even if one understood only a few lines of the French, the movement on stage would have told the whole story and would have been, for its own sake, a delight to watch. Perhaps Morris's most brilliant touch was turning the glaring portrait of Mr. Boylston, which graces the front of the auditorium, into a representation of Tervagon, the great and fearsome god of the pagans.

There were splendid performances by Jacques Bersani, Ted Morris, Michel Herve, Jean-Claude Martin, Samuel Abbott, and N. Boylston. If you're in a holiday humor, I offer Le Jeu de Saint Nicolas my highest recommendation. I myself was celebrating the birthday of Alexander Graham Bell, as well as my own. If you have no personal holiday to celebrate, I recommend them both to you.