The Washington Revels 28th Annual Christmas RevelsBy Betsy Marks Delaney • Dec 7th, 2010 • Category: Reviews
The Washington Revels
George Washington University-Lisner Auditorium
Through December 12th
2:30 with one intermission
Reviewed December 4th, 2010
In its 28th year, Washington Revels has spread the impact of darkness and light, and the joy of the season, from diverse cultures including the Balkans, Scandinavia, the Italian Renaissance, colonial Quebec and more.
The central theme of The Christmas Revels, is always the celebration of the turning of the seasons, the shortest day and its universal effect on cultures worldwide.
From their web site: “An established cultural institution in the greater Washington area for over 25 years, Washington Revels is dedicated to reviving and celebrating cultural traditions — music, dance, storytelling, drama and ritual — that have bound communities together over the ages and across the globe.”
Christmas Revels’ performances defy neat, tidy descriptions. Part chorale concert, part comedic play, part dance, part storytelling of the period and culture, this holiday staple for some simply refuses to fit in with other seasonal events.
These productions always come with a generous helping of audience participation and a few annual traditions that appear regardless of the theme, such as Lord of the Dance, a much anticipated lead-in to intermission that’s guaranteed to get you dancing if you desire it, carols, peace rounds and other songs where the audience is encouraged to sing along and even perform. The Shortest Day and Sussex Mummer’s Carol are traditional for all ten Revels companies throughout the country.
This year’s theme and featured musical performers, The Mellstock Band (from Oxford, England), come from Thomas Hardy’s Wessex, a fictional area of England based on Dorset, Hardy’s home. The characters and story-line are based on Thomas Hardy’s “Under the Greenwood Tree.”
Set in the 1830’s, the Christmas Revels’ story revolves around Fancy Day (Rachel Carlson) the town’s schoolmistress, with a nightingale voice and a quick, playful sense of humor. Miss Day has just returned to her hometown, Mellstock, after being educated in the city.
Dour Parson Maybold (Danny Pushkin), is new to Mellstock. He is unhappy with the rustic music and nature of the village Quire, (played amiably by Bill Hoffman, Jim Lazar, Alden Michaels, Alan Peel, Jamie Sandel, and Will Wurzel) and has determined to replace them with the church’s harmonium, a new kind of reed organ, played by Miss Day.
Dick Dewey (Josh Sticklin), a local farmer and friend to the members of the Quire, is smitten with Fancy’s beauty and humor, but he’s not the only one. Mr. Stiner (Bobby Gravitz), a rich farmer who’s not afraid to flaunt his status or his money, has purchased the harmonium for the church. He’s also taken a fancy to Fancy.
English country traditions include performances by the Foggy Bottom Morris Men (with the haunting Abbots Bromley Horn Dance), Cutting Edge Sword (whose fascinating sword dance is amazing to watch), and St. George and the Dragon (a Mummers’ Play, not to be confused with the Philadelphia Mummers of New Year’s Parade fame).
Under Roberta Gasbarre’s firm, sure artistic direction, over 100 performers and production staff, onstage and backstage, bring Thomas Hardy’s Wessex to life. Elizabeth Fulford Miller’s music direction ensures songs are note perfect. Children’s stage and music directors, Jenni Swanson Voorhees and H. Katherine Cole bring order to what otherwise might be considered chaos, providing several plays within the whole as a children’s chorus of fourteen come and go throughout.
Colin K. Bills’ beautiful, deceptively simple set and lighting design sets the mood and location. Rosemary Pardee’s costume design solidifies the historical context. Roger Riggle’s hair and make-up complete the looks of the villagers. This huge undertaking takes as many artists, technical staff and volunteers as you will see onstage.
While some Revels performances are more secular in nature, this year’s performance leans quite heavily on Christmas themes, but the grand nature of the performances and portraits of these characters in context make for a fun and pleasant event, regardless of your opinions of the holiday.
It’s also one of the most family-friendly events you’ll find, though the production does tend to run a bit long. At just over two and a half hours plus a twenty-minute intermission, it’s a full performance, and not ideal for very small children. Use your judgment when bringing children younger than six. Seats must be purchased for all attendees.
From The Director
This year we celebrate an English country Christmas in the spirit of Thomas Hardy and his rustic “Wessex,” which served as the setting for many of his novels and short stories. This fictional region in southwest England is based on the real-world Dorset and its surroundings. One of Hardy’s earliest and most lighthearted works, Under the Greenwood Tree, recalls the characters and pastoral atmosphere of the village of Mellstock, the simple pleasures of country living, and the poignancy of a passing era. I want to share a few thoughts about the creative journey we took from old Mellstock to Lisner today.
One of the unexpected pleasures of creating this year’s show was in exploring the rich and colorful world of Hardy’s life and times, as well as his books. We have borrowed or adapted place and character names, as well as poetic and funny lines and scenes, from Under the Greenwood Tree and other writings, especially the seasonal word paintings for which Hardy is beloved.
In building an onstage community, Revels always creates multigenerational families. This year, our families have names from Hardy’s books and life—the Longpuddles, for instance. There’s also Nellie Titterington, named after the parlor maid at Hardy’s last home. Robert Penny, Michael Mail, and other characters are from Under the Greenwood Tree. Even young Thomas Hardy himself sings in our chorus, alongside his mother, Jemima, his father, Thomas Sr., and various other friends and relations. We hope that the fun of this process will shine through the song, dance, and revelry on stage.
As always, The Christmas Revels illuminates the theme of winter solstice and the darkness at the turning of the year, along with the spectrum of emotions that people experience during this time. In this performance, the character Fancy Day, the schoolmistress and Dick Dewy’s new love, has returned to Mellstock after being educated in the city. Like many of us, she is caught in the middle, cherishing the old ways but moving toward the new. During this holiday season, take a moment to look back with us at how all of our lives are changing—and staying the same—in the village of Mellstock.
—Roberta Gasbarre, December 2010
Photos provided by Washington Revels.
Disclaimer: The Washington Revels provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review. The reviwer also worked with the Revels several years ago.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/5951.
Betsy Marks Delaney is founder and Artistic Director of OutOftheBlackBox Theatre Company (O2B2) and General Manager of the Greenbelt Arts Center. Since 2006 Betsy has worked as a director, producer, designer and more. Betsy has also worked with Washington Revels, Arena Stage, the now-defunct Harlequin Dinner Theatre and with community theatre companies both in Maryland and in upstate New York. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Technical Theatre from SUNY New Paltz. Through Hawkeswood Productions, Betsy produces archival performance videos and YouTube highlight spots.