Spicing up the scripture

With puppets, music, and performance, a medieval mystery play explores the life of Michael, the patron saint and protector of various countries, military organizations, and rulers

BRATTLEBORO — “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End.” Hear this as the seminal line in Winged Productions' original contemporary mystery play, Michael, Sept. 30 though Oct. 2 at St. Michael's Episcopal Church in Brattleboro.

Winged Productions is the creation of Paul and Susan Dedell. The former has written several scores for Sandglass Theater works, including D-Generation and Conference of the Birds. In addition, he's composed several large choral works, Come Life, Shaker Life and Songs of Divine Chemistry, premiered by the Brattleboro Concert Choir. He has also composed numerous musical theater scores, songs, anthems, and instrumental pieces.

Susan Dedell, who recently celebrated 30 years as music director of St. Michael's Episcopal Church, is on the piano faculty at the Brattleboro Music Center and is former artistic director of the Brattleboro Concert Choir.

Medieval mystery plays

Winged Productions has become noteworthy for its original music theater pieces created in the spirit of the medieval mystery play, a centuries-old genre focused on the representation of biblical narratives and subjects offered in church settings as tableaux vivants accompanied by antiphonal chanting in Latin, not in the vernacular.

Such mystery plays were a means of spicing up the delivery of the scripture, a vehicle for educating as well as entertaining the average believer of the Middle Ages.

Susan Dedell recalls years ago saying to the late Tony Barrand, a major player in folk music history and performance, “Wouldn't it be fun to do a mystery play?”

“He thought it was a great idea and, since then,” she adds wryly, “Brattleboro has become the center of the mystery play revival movement in the U.S. ''

Barrand performed in the Dedells' first mystery play, Three in the Wilderness, in 2014.

With the Dedells' narration and music complemented by Finn Campman's puppetry and visual augmentations, that piece set the stage for the collaborative creation of several other Winged Productions mystery plays, each involving the musical, visual, and theatrical creativity of area artists.

Exploring the life of Michael

The group's sixth mystery play, Michael, was conceived, written, and directed by Susan Dedell, with a score composed by the Dedells and art direction, again, by Finn Campman, and text that is, in turns, evocative, informative, and elucidating.

The collaborative work with Campman - of Company of Strangers and myriad Sandglass productions - was aimed at trying to create more ephemeral environment, one separate from the tangible world.

Campman designed three larger-than-life puppets, and Nora Gordon - who's been involved in all Winged Productions mystery plays from the start - designed one massive puppet. With the basics of each puppet in place, St. Michael's parishioners were invited to “come flesh each out under Finn's direction.”

Paul Dedell notes: “Finn has created beautiful video to accompany the narrative for this, too,” he adds, pulling in recently received Hubble telescope images to enhance the otherworldliness of the piece.

In this production, violinist Kathy Andrew, co-concertmaster of Vermont Symphony, joins percussionist Steve Rice - who plays a panoply of instruments - and the St. Michael's choir, which “creates an instrumental texture with voice for the performance.” Susan Dedell is on keyboard.

“Bringing a new vision of Michael the Archangel to our midst,” Susan Dedell explains, “the production centers on the life of Michael, whose name in both Hebrew and Arabic means “who is like God?” It is the name itself that forms one of the basic questions at the center of this new mystery play and that provides creative fodder to explore Michael's role and persona.

According to Dedell, Michael became increasingly associated with the fight of good versus evil and, as such, became the patron saint and protector of various countries, military organizations, and rulers.

“It is, therefore, no surprise that so many churches, cities, institutions, and people have been named after Michael,” she points out.

She adds that there are dragons in this story.

“How could we explore Michael (and the name of Michael) without them?” she asks.

“As in Christianity, where they are most vividly depicted in the book of Revelation, dragons are present in Judaism, where they were referred to by the name 'tannin' (monster) and were considered to be created by God,” she continues.

“In Islam, dragons stand for both the darkness of destruction and the light of the divine,” Dedell says. “These dragons symbolically represent both creation and chaos and the balance of those forces which makes life possible.”

Citing the core of the piece, she poses these questions: “What happens when Michael encounters dragons? Who are these dragons? For that matter, who is Michael?”

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