For The Washington Revels 30th anniversary Christmas Revels, the company pulls out all the stops, tripping through the centuries in England from medieval times to the 1920s as they bring traditional British and European song and dance to the stage.
The Washington Revels is one of ten independent companies of Revels performers in the country. Really, there is no way to sum up the Revels tradition. It is billed as a celebration of the Winter Solstice and early music, dance, and drama of Britain and Europe, but it is so much more. Each year sees a different setting and story for the play and new music, but each production also includes traditional Morris and sword dancing, a mummer’s play, a poem on the shortest day, and several songs that don’t change year after year. More than one person in the audience had attended every one of the 30 Washington Revels performances. They did not need to look at the music provided in the program. Many of the non-repeating songs this year come from the 1984 Revels production of this play and if not from there, from other productions over the years. Director and company Artistic Director Roberta Gasbarre refers to it as ‘Revels Greatest Hits.’
The story this year is set in the real life English Haddon Hall about the real ninth Duke of Rutland, who owned it in the 1920s and decided to restore it. The play veers into fiction as it speculates why he decided to do that when the Duke (Morgan Duncan), his wife Kathleen (Katrina Van Duyn), and two children (Mattias Lundberg and Mira Cohen) visit the abandoned hall and find themselves at a party of the ghosts of dukes and servants past who convince him not to turn the hall into a motorway. There are echoes of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol throughout and in the second act, the ghost of Revels past arrives for a mini-play. Oran Sandel, Sabrina Mandell, and Mark Jaster round out the cast of major speaking rolls, playing several of these ghosts. Jaster plays the jester and is a hilarious silent fool – until he takes off his bells to recite the final piece, “The Shortest Day” and exhorts the audience to Welcome Yule.
There is as much singing as story and Music Director Elizabeth Fulford Miller did a great job pulling the songs together. Every song was beautiful, especially when the women sang alone on “Ther is No Rose of Swych Vertu,” a song from the 15th century in Middle English, and the entire chorus and bands took up “Wie Shoen Leuchtet der Morgenstern,” a German chorale piece from the 16th Century. They also had several children’s songs and games by the children’s chorus alone. The audience was invited to sing along on the traditional “Wassail,” a few Christmas carols, and “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” which involved choreography for the entire auditorium and literal leaping lords. The song will never be the same.
For all of the crazy traditions and offerings in Revels, one great thing is their own sense of humor about it all. “The Twelve Days of Christmas” began when one character bemoaned that Christmas should be longer, and another responded with, “It sounds like an excuse for a song!”
The true star of the piece and what makes Revels so special is the chorus. Made up of amateur singers and actors from the community, the 80-member ensemble includes a children’s chorus, a group of teens, and adults from ages 18 to 84. The amateur designation means very little. They are all strong and beautiful singers and dancers. Director Gasbarre worked miracles putting this together and organizing more than one hundred people (when you add in the Morris dancers, sword dancers, and the two bands) – and she had the entire audience dancing!
The two bands are the Washington Revels Brass, a 6-member ensemble (Robert Posten, Robert Birch, David Cran, Benno Fritz, Don Spinelli, and Sharon Tiebert) that not only sound beautiful, but do not overpower the singers in the least. They are joined by special guests this year, Piffaro, The Renaissance Band. This is also a 6-member ensemble (Joan Kimball, Robert Wiemken, Theresa Koenig, Laura Kuhlmann, and Liza Malamut) who play traditional Renaissance-era instruments, many of which they make themselves. Each musician plays multiple instruments – mostly reed instruments, flutes, strings or ancient bagpipes that are quieter and less smooth than our modern varieties, but the sound is hauntingly familiar.
The costumes for this year’s outing are quite spectacular. Costume Designers Rosemary Pardee, Emilie Long, Kathleen McGhee, and Cecily Pilzer must have emptied the entire wardrobe department to clothe the cast in authentic outfits from ten centuries. There are medieval robes and renaissance headpieces, Elizabethan dresses and Victorian suits, all gorgeous and gilt and arranged into families of performers that complement each other. The production works simply as a look at British fashion throughout the ages.
The set spans the stage as a life-size side of a large English Hall, including a minstrels’ gallery, a knight in shining armor, banners, rugs, and a giant Yule log. No detail is spared as the cast literally decks the hall…and the entire auditorium…at the start of the play, and slowly transforms the place from a boarded up old hall into a brilliant party shining with light. Colin K. Bills designed both the set and the lighting and it’s easy to see how well the pieces work together.
Revels has come a long way in three decades. Company Executive Director and song-leader Greg Lewis reminisced during the play about the first revels where apparently the only set was about a dozen fake trees onstage. There was one blocking note for the play: “Don’t stand behind a tree.” It was fun to be there to see Revels, an organization dedicated to tradition, reveling in their own traditions as well and reminiscing over the 30 years they’ve been a part of this community. As the ghosts asked the audience at one point, “Shall we revel on?” The resounding answer is, “YES!”
Running Time: Approximately two hours and fifteen minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.
The Christmas Revels plays through December 16, 2012 at Lisner Auditorium at George Washington University -730 21st Street NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call 1-800-595-4849, or purchase them online.
The Washington Revels’ website.