Sixteenth century Brits sure knew how to have a good time. Their holiday “partying” traditions are showcased in “The Christmas Revels,” an annual show by production company Revels, Inc., with this year’s theme inspired by Thomas Hardy’s novels and set in Wessex, England. Playing at Sanders Theatre through Dec. 30, “Revels” includes everything from clogging to caroling to serpent playing (the serpent being a snake shaped, British musical instrument of yore). Though jaunty and lighthearted throughout, the show ultimately asks the audience to question why tradition is so easily forgotten. The show employs the talents of the Mellstock Band, Casterbridge Children, and Village Quire, musical groups that play and dress as musicians would centuries ago and who come together to preserve tradition and create a spectacle of Christmas cheer.
The show ties together 33 theatrical, song, and dance numbers celebrating Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and the Winter Solstice with a common plot line: the townspeople must use their acts to convince the village pastor to stop meddling with tradition. For anyone with Scroogelike tendencies, this show will be sure to dispel all negative thinking. “Revels” is bursting at the seams with Yuletide spirit, transporting the audience back to simpler times in the quaint English countryside. The balcony of Sanders Theatre is adorned with strings of evergreen to add to the festive air; children and hankie-wavers frolic upon the stage.
Though not always exciting, “Revels” is consistently successful at crafting a homey, close-knit setting that conveys the feeling of the era and season. The cast of characters create a strong sense of community and aim to include the audience with their interactive caroling and dancing. The first of several joint ventures between the viewers and performers is a rendition of “O Come All Ye Faithful,” which imparts a wonderful added feeling of unity to the show.
This warm sensation continues as both the vocally deficient and vocally gifted attempt to sing “The Lord of the Dance,” a catchy tune that propels the program into intermission. However, instead of having people simply stand up and leave the theatre, the “Revels” actors come gallivanting through the aisles, fetching families, and leading chains of people to the exit. These effusive personal touches add to the already buoyant and lively atmosphere in Sanders. At times, the acts can be a bit slow and similar in material, but there are other moments of pure fun and innovation found in the dances by the Pinewoods Morris Men and the clogging of Gillian Stewart.
The Morris Men make several appearances, sometimes with jingle bells attached to their knees, other times with swords. Stewart demonstrated her unique clogging abilities, skillfully jumping in the air, clicking her heels together, and spreading the light-heartedness of the act, even in her heavy shoes.
The Casterbridge Children, the youngest group involved, were also impressive. They held their own with the adults while harmonizing perfectly and performing old-fashioned comedic skits about animals.
In addition to the acting, the fashions of the characters also made quite a statement throughout the show. Bonnets, capes, shawls, top hats, and vests were abundantly on display; all actors were impeccably clad in plain, plaid, and floral patterns.
The production’s truly carefree live music was provided by the Mellstock Band and Cambridge Symphonic Brass Ensemble. From oboe beats to clarinet trills, the players are adept at creating a joyful, holiday mood with their modern and old-fashioned musical instruments.
One of the main debates over tradition and change in the show emerges from the addition of a new musical instrument to the church’s store of objects: some are eager to embrace the “new-fangled harmonium” while others anxiously await its impending presence. The question of having Mummers perform a skit during the Christmas festivities is another debate over abandoning tradition for something new. As these issues are brought up, it becomes evident that “Revels” is rooting for tradition to be saved and cherished. The show itself is attempting to preserve the traditions of a time long forgotten, demonstrating that the joys of the holiday season transcend hundreds of years and thousands of miles.
The program embodies a jubilant lightheartedness of celebration that is best appreciated when experienced with family, rather than college-age friends. It takes everyone back in time, but remains more quaint than edgy. Even so, with talented actors leading rounds of “Alleluia” and members of the audience cheerily singing along, “Revels” has proved itself worthy of being a tradition in itself.