When the Monastery of the Holy Spirit presents this year’s performance of "The Play of Herod," it will mark the end of a 39-year-old tradition. Since 1974, this remarkable production has told the traditional Christmas story through a musical-drama more than 800 years old.
"We’re very privileged to host the last performance for this," said Brother Callistus, who handles public relations for the monastery. "Yet, I’m quite truly sad to see it come to an end, because the play is awesome, with a compelling combination of music and drama that is so powerful."
When director Kelly Morris with the Atlanta Camerata Theater conceived the idea for "The Play of Herod" in 1974, he was in his second year as director at Kelly’s Seed & Feed Theatre in Atlanta. Based on the medieval manuscript "The Fleury Playbook," one of a group of dramas found in a Benedictine monastery in France, the play was among the first productions of early music in Atlanta, and the response to the first performance was overwhelming.
"It was an immediate, gratifying experience," Morris said.
After a return engagement the following year, Morris turned to the Monastery, asking if his theater company could sing the play from the loft in the Abbey Church.
That year, the audience consisted of only a handful of monks, entering the church as part of their daily routine. However, the following year, the abbot asked Morris’ group to perform on the floor of the church for the entire Monastery.
"It was like the music had come home," Morris said. "I remember thinking how peculiar it was for a group of 30 people to sing 800-year-old Latin in this place that was, in that day, so remote and unlikely. But the next year, we were back, performing for not only the monks, but also our families and friends."
According to Brother Callistus, the Abbey Church is an ideal setting for the play.
"The play begins with a procession that is amazing, made more so by the architecture of the church, with its long center aisle," Brother Callistus said. "In fact, everything about the production seems perfectly suited to our church."
Audiences agreed, and as word spread about the play, attendance grew. The performance at the Monastery became a much-anticipated annual event.
"In a way, it’s an artifact from a strange, distant world," Morris said. "It’s hard to imagine that something this old can appeal to a contemporary audience, but the story is both familiar and timeless. It moves and sounds in a way that we are not used to, but after only a few minutes, the audience surrenders to the sound and the richness of it."
However, creating this experience for the audience is not a simple process, and maintaining a high standard of excellence for 39 years has not been easy.
"It takes about 50 people to put the production together," Morris said. "Many of the same people have stayed with us for years. Most of those people are now in their late 50s or in their 60s. I’m 70 years old myself. And I think that’s long enough."
Thus, for Morris and company, this will be the final year for the production. But, in keeping with tradition, the show will go on as usual, complete with the "cookies and carols" reception with cast members following this last performance.
"Our cast bakes most all the cookies," Morris said. "It’s just one of the things that has always contributed to the family feel and the sense of reunion that have helped make this production so special."
Tickets are on sale for the performance on Saturday, Dec. 14, from 7 to 8:30 p.m.
For more information about "The Play of Herod" or to purchase tickets, visit the monastery Web site at www.trappist.net. The Monastery of the Holy Spirit is at 2625 Ga. Highway 212 SW in Conyers.