Revels marks an anniversary with dramatic flair
CAMBRIDGE — The Christmas Revels just turned 40. Presented every year at Sanders Theatre since 1971, Friday’s event was the first of 16 performances scheduled through Dec. 29, and it played to a packed house.
The Christmas Revels celebrate the winter solstice with music, dancing, and storytelling. The stage was continually aglow with bright costumes and cheerful festivity designed to counter the effects of the frozen season.
This year the storytelling centered on the imaginary 10th Duke of Rutland and was set in the 1920s. The duke brought his family into Haddon Hall for one last look at his ancestral home. He was making plans to demolish the ancient structure. Suddenly the spirits of the hall began to appear for their annual celebration of the winter solstice. The duke told them about his plans and invited them to join him elsewhere. The spirits would not move. If the hall was destroyed, then the tradition would be destroyed. How did the spirits make their case for preserving the hall, for preserving tradition? How did they change the duke’s mind?
In a climactic moment near the end of the evening, the spirits persuaded the duke to participate in a play within the play: Saint George and the Dragon. With elaborate and witty costumes, the figures enacted the death of the old year and the birth of the new one. The duke was persuaded.
But the spirits had persuaded and engaged us long before they swayed the duke.
The audience sang carols and rounds in full voice, spontaneously tapped their feet on the floor, and joined hands to create a processional into the entrance hallway of the theater while singing “The Lord of the Dance.’’
Mike Arnold, who lives in Westford and works in Cambridge, was engaged in a different way. He was unexpectedly selected from the audience to come onstage as the “Lord of Misrule.’’ He presided, as a false replacement for the duke, while mayhem took place onstage. “I had a great time,’’ said Arnold during intermission.
There was a bountiful supply of music. A ghostly performance of “The Cries of London’’ by Orlando Gibbons was sung as a processional by a chorus dressed in white-hooded robes. The text of this work came from actual street cries of 17th-century London marketsellers and was spiced with lines such as, “New mussels, new lily-white mussels!’’
The Derbyshire Children delighted on each appearance but were particularly charming in the counting song “Come and I Will Sing You,’’ where singing and intricate choreography were combined.
The highly entertaining nature of this production may have disguised the incredible energy and organization behind it. The evening required the precise coordination of huge forces: multiple choruses, multiple instrumental ensembles, a children’s chorus, and many dancers.
This celebration of Haddon Hall was also a celebration of Sanders Theatre. We realize, through events like this one, how important it is to have a sense of place in our lives.
The Revels have also proven that there is a place for ancient ceremonies in the digital age. With 40 years of Christmas Revels in Sanders Theatre, the Revels have succeeded in giving us new ways to experience tradition — and have become one themselves.
Jeffrey Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.