Review: ‘The Christmas Revels: An Elizabethan Celebration of the Winter Solstice’ at Washington Revels

Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

Washington Revels rings in the holiday season with their 36th annual production of The Christmas Revels. For those unfamiliar with the revels format, the show is an annual tradition which revolves around a different theme each year. This season, we are whisked away to 16th century England—specifically, to the rural town of Norwich—for An Elizabethan Celebration of the Winter Solstice, a marvelous showcase of talent whose artistic direction and development was overseen by Artistic Director Robert Gasbarre, Music Director Elizabeth Anne Fulford, and Production Manager Colin K. Bills.

The story line follows a former clown and business partner in Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre venture Will Kemp (Mark Jaster) as he Morris dances his way from cosmopolitan London to the rustic rural town of Norwich. Simultaneously, Queen Elizabeth I (Katrina Van Duyn) is making her way across the countryside on a “Queen’s Progress” in order to visit her subjects in celebration of the season. While these events did take place, the Revels take the artistic liberty of having them occur at the same time—which allows for much revelry and carousing in the village in which the characters meet.

Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

A cast of over 100 performers showcases a variety of talents throughout the show. Notably, they are joined by Piffaro: The Renaissance Band who wield a bevy of instruments such as shawms, dulcians, sackbuts, recorders, krumhorns, bagpipes, lutes, guitars, harps, and a variety of percussion instruments. The band accompanies much of the music throughout the show. Where Piffaro is not present, the triumphant and skilled Boar’s Head Brass takes the reins.

The Rock Creek Morris Women provide the audience with a rare chance to see Morris dancing in all its glory: wearing bells on their shins, the women perform the rhythmic stepping and choreography unique to this style of English folk dance. They stood out in “Cotswold Morris”, a dance number in which they were the featured performers.

The Christmas Revels always involve some measure of (optional) audience participation. During “Dona Nobis Pacem”, among other holiday classics, the audience is encouraged to sing. This is particularly effective during the end of the first act, where audience members can join the procession out of the theater during “Lord of the Dance” prior to intermission.

Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

There is, of course, a show within the show. This year’s Revels includes the tale of St.George and the Dragon. These theatrical numbers are utilized as comic relief among the carols and history—and boy, are they hilarious! There is one dramatic moment in the first act which recounts multiple Shakespeare plays and involves the entire cast. I won’t spoil what happens, but I laughed harder than I have at any show in recent memory. The Christmas Revels also includes an homage to A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Norwich’s resident performers The Rude Mechanicals (who are, indeed, very rude).

The Gloriana Children – the youngest cast members – provide some adorably lighthearted moments. My personal favorite was “Roman Soldiers”, in which the children participate in a singing game which pits the Romans against the British.

The Young Tudors – the young adults of the bunch – also stand out when they perform a courtly sword dance called “The Buffens” at the behest of Queen Elizabeth.

Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

While the performances were all stellar, another highlight of the show was the spectacular costuming. To clothe that many was a group effort. The costumers ought to be especially proud of their Queen Elizabeth I, who is every bit the shining regal monarch in her outsized dresses and collars. The children (and the adults) were captivated by her as she entered the theater in her shimmering, royal garb.

There is almost too much in this show to discuss—and believe me, I wasn’t able to touch on all its wonders. Not only do The Christmas Revels provide a deep dive into the history of each performance, but they also allow people to enjoy a communal experience in which they can celebrate the season. History fans, fans of traditional folk music and dance, children and adults alike will love the variety and passion in the performances of The Christmas Revels: An Elizabethan Celebration of the Winter Solstice.

Running Time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, with one intermission.

The Christmas Revels: An Elizabethan Celebration of the Winter Solstice plays through December 16, 2018, at the Washington Revels performing at The Lisner Auditorium at The George Washington University—730 21st Street NW, in Washington, DC. Tickets can be purchased online.