The Christmas Revels: ‘An Irish Celebration of the Winter Solstice’

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The Washington Revels takes to the sea for their 2014 production and explores the music, dance, and stories of Irish immigrants. It is a rollicking good time and a poignant exploration at the immigrant experience and the traditions they brought to our shore.

The Straw Boys. Photo courtesy of The Washington Revels.
The Straw Boys. Photo courtesy of The Washington Revels.

Revels calls themselves “a cultural institution” which is true on so many levels. There are 10 companies around the world that celebrate cultural traditions, song, dance, poetry, and stories all year. The Washington Revels has been going for over 30 years and their Christmas show is always the biggest

The cast is a mix of professional actors, musicians, and dancers and community members, teens and children, which is a miracle of organization that Artistic and Stage Director Roberta Gasbarre pulls off every year. Especially this year, when there is such a focus on community and most of the company is onstage most of the time. You never lose the main action even as each family live out their own story in the chorus.

Acts one and two take place three years apart in the late 1840s. The first in a village where they’re celebrating an Irish Christmas with a mummers play, a Ceili (a big party), and lots of carols and dancing; there only a hint of worry that the harvest is still bad. The second takes place a few years later on the deck of a “famine ship” taking them all to America after they’ve lost their everything to the potato blight. It’s understandably more serious and shows a good range of Irish music – from the heartbreaking ballads that grew from the tragedies in Irish history to the joyful, infectious melodies that distinguish their music from anything else on earth.

Music Director Elizabeth Anne Fulford has her hands full with these varied songs and everyone sounds great. There are the yearly favorites and the sing-a-longs like “Deck the Halls,” “Lord of the Dance,” and “Sussex Mummers Carol.” Revels Executive Director Greg Lewis dusts off his Irish accent as the mayor of Kilkieran to lead the singing and dance the Morris dance.

There are the traditional Irish tunes like ”Rocky Road to Dublin” and “Colcannon” since no show about Ireland is complete without a song about potatoes. There are the ballads like “The Darkest Midnight in December” and “Si Bheag, Si Mhor” (Little Fairie Hill, Big Fairie Hill). Many songs are in Gaelic or Welsh and the whole cast from eight to eighty are strong singers and performers.

The children’s chorus has a lot of songs this year. “The Wren Song” and “There’s a Big Ship Sailing (Alee Alle O)” are a delight.

Tina Eck and Joseph G DeZarn. Photo courtesy of The Washington Revels.
Tina Eck and Joseph G DeZarn. Photo courtesy of The Washington Revels.

Séamus Miller and Sam Game (Darragh Ryan and Evin Connelly) are the two main actors of the piece. They recite many toasts and traditional blessings throughout with perfect Irish accents, but annual poem “The Shortest Day” falls to Zoe Alexandratos (Maitre Ryan) who plays Darragh’s mother and offers hope to the traumatized immigrants with her own faith.

Every year, the musicians add so much, but with the Irish tunes, the harpist, fiddlers, and piper made the ceili and so many other moments in the play so much fun. Kelly Criscuolo-DeButts on uilleann pipes and fiddle, Joe DeZarn on fiddle, Tina Eck on Irish flute and tin whistle, Sue Richards on Celtic harp, and Jesse Winch on bodhran (drum) are all amazing musicians who take such joy in their work. The Kilkieran Brass are back again as well and tackling these intricate melodies on trombone and French Horn can’t be easy. Robert Birch, Gregory Pascuzzi, Sharon Tiebert, Benno Fritz, Chris Matten, and Don Spinelli do it well. Fritz and Pascuzzi, along with Fulford, also helped arrange some of the music.

Another major part of the production is the dancing. What tale of Ireland would be complete without it? Shannon Dunne choreographed most of the traditional Irish dancing and performs herself. The whole chorus dances reels, polkas, and waltzes. Dancers Kate Bole, Grace Dodd, Kate Spanos along with Dunne stage a hard shoe competition. And five kids perform a “Sean-nos” dance, the old style, on the deck of the ship. They are Aurora McLaughlin-Peconom, Leila Nelson, Ella Osdoba, Ada Silverman, and Leah Silverman. The Cutting Edge Sword dancers and Morris dancers also make an appearance.

The set and lighting are both designed by Colin K Bills. The first act takes place in a homely cottage before transforming into the deck of a ship with nets stretching to the ceiling. The lighting, especially at sea greatly contributes to the mood. The costumes by Rosemary Pardee are perfect down to the last detail. These are poor people travelling in steerage in working clothes and aprons, but she’s chosen such bright colors and beautiful details for each actor onstage that it makes a joyful picture. The mummer’s play is simpler this year, with costumes made from things you can find around a ship, but it somehow even funnier with the dragon transforming into an evil worm made of baskets and canvas.

 Rowyn Peel, Erin Sutherland, Celia Murphy, Jane Brower Bloodworth and Jan Elicker, and other cast members. Photo courtesy of The Washington Revels.
Rowyn Peel, Erin Sutherland, Celia Murphy, Jane Brower Bloodworth and Jan Elicker, and other cast members. Photo courtesy of The Washington Revels.

A good part of my family travelled on a boat like this from Ireland in the same years the play is set. I’ve never really considered before what that meant and what it must have been like – the desperation, the homesickness, and the hope that journey took. Revels always, well, revels in the history of old cultures, but this year, I got an unexpected gift watching the story of my family. Besides which, there’s nothing on earth like the wild melodies and rhythmic pounding of Irish music. This is a rich and moving production that tells such an important story and keeps these vital traditions alive with joy. The auditorium was almost full on opening day, so be sure to book tickets soon.

Running Time: Three hours, with one 15-minute intermission.

The Christmas Revels: An Irish Celebration of the Winter Solstice plays through December 14, 2014 at The Washington Revels performing at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium -730 21st Street NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (800)-595-4849, or purchase them online.

1 COMMENT

  1. We attended the performance last Saturday afternoon and it was WONDERFUL! It really put me in the Christmas mood and made me appreciate my Irish roots more than ever. Our nine year old granddaughter was one of the children in the cast which made it even more special. I recommend the show!

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