It’s not every contemporary playwright who reaches back half a millennium for source material. But David Budbill didn’t hesitate. Well, OK, he did wait a few decades between inspiration and adaptation of a 1479 play — one that figures in his revival of Two for Christmas, which opens at Lost Nation Theater this week.
“It all started in 1964, when I was teaching literature to high school sophomores,” Budbill recalls. A graduate in philosophy and theology, he “didn’t know anything about English literature — I was one step ahead of the students.” But among his discoveries in the canon was the so-called “miracle play,” a form of medieval vernacular drama typically depicting the life of a saint. One of them, The Second Shepherds’ Play, Budbill describes as a “great big, long parody followed by a straight reenactment of the Nativity.”
Something about the play inspired him, years later, to translate it from Middle English. It was challenging, Budbill says, but he managed to maintain the work’s line structure and rhyme scheme. Meanwhile, though, he had written a “Judevine-style Nativity poem-play,” Budbill says, referencing his best-known work. “It was The Pulp Cutters’ Nativity.” Given the parallel stories, he and director Andrew Doe decided to put the pair of one-acts together. Two for Christmas was first produced in 1996.
In The Second Shepherds’ Play, a thief nabs a lamb and brings it home to his wife. When the shepherds arrive to reclaim it, the wife gets in bed with the lamb and insists it is her newborn baby. Returning to their flock, the shepherds encounter an angel, who tells them about the birth of the Christ child. In The Pulp Cutters’ Nativity, the shepherds become loggers, the lamb a chainsaw, and the angel a waitress in a local diner. “The second play shows how little things have changed” in 500 years, Budbill observes.
Why bring back the work now? The playwright’s answer is simple: “Because some people wanted to. I wanted to. I thought it was time.”
So did Doe, who once again directs. The same actors perform both plays; three of them are reprising their roles from the original production: Ben Ash as Antoine, Robert Nuner as Arnie and Mark S. Roberts as Doug. Despite this continuity, Budbill says this Two for Christmas is completely different from the 1996 version. For one thing, there’s a lot more music — directed by singer/fiddler Susannah Blachly. And, he says, “Andy is directing in a different way — that’s what you do. You never do the same thing twice.”
But Two for Christmas, which Budbill suggests is a “really hilarious” alternative to seasonal staples A Christmas Carol and The Nutcracker — will appear more than twice. After three nights this week with LNT, the play will travel the following week to Hardwick, and the week after that to the FlynnSpace in Burlington. Hallelujah.
"Two for Christmas" by David Budbill, Thursday through Saturday, November 29 to December 1, 7:30 p.m., plus 2 p.m. on Saturday, at Montpelier City Hall Arts Center. $15-20. Info, 229-0492. See calendar for upcoming dates and locations. lostnationtheater.org, davidbudbill.com