By David Greenham
Once again, under challenging circumstances, the Revels cast and crew has pulled off a rousing good show.
The Christmas Revels 2021 directed by Patrick Swanson. Music direction by George Emlen, scenic design by Jeremy Barnett, costume design by Heidi A. Hermiller, lighting design by Jeff Adelberg, sound design by Bill Winn, projection designs by Ari Herzig, choreography by Kelli Edwards, Gillian Stewart, and Tony Tucker. Produced by Revels, Inc. at Sanders Theatre, Cambridge, streaming online through January 9.
The present and the future are closing in on one of the Hub’s most cherished holiday traditions. Last year’s gala 50th-anniversary edition of the Revels focused on the ghosts of James Otis Jr. and Josiah Quimby III (brought to life by Paula Plum and Richard Snee) in the empty Sanders Theatre. The spirits of the theater’s famous statues were joined on stage by artistic director Patrick Swanson and music director George Emlen, along with David Coffin and singers Johnny Nichols Jr. and Carolyn Saxon. At the time, it was hoped that this would be a one-time interruption.
A year later: we’re in different circumstances, but Covid lingers. What we have here may be the ultimate unwelcome holiday houseguest.
After half a century of performing, the Revels is perfectly positioned to exemplify the venerable theater motto that the show must go on, even if by virtual means. This year, artistic director Swanson and his group of merrymakers have made a number of helpful adjustments to the festive proceedings. Sanders Theatre was, once again, filled with song — although the chorus and the distanced audience members are singing together in masks.
Actors David Coffin, Carolyn Saxon, William Forchion, Regie Gibson, Mark Jaster, Paula Plum, Sabrina Selma Mandell, and Richard Snee are joined on stage by a couple of dozen chorus folks. Also present is a mix of special guests that make the Revels a “new” event every year, despite the fact that production includes a number of dependable favorites.
Swanson’s script is very au courant. The show is set in the George and Dragon Pub in December of 2021. Joe (William Forchion) and his wife Rita (Carolyn Saxon) own the drinking hole and have kept it up and running during the pandemic. Covid rules have permitted customers to return, and Joe is delighted to welcome everyone to the George and Dragon Pub’s annual Carol Sing and Christmas party. When the masked patrons wander in, they are greeted by a spirit-raising jazzy overture (performed by the amazing on-stage “Pickled Eggs House Band”).
Revels fans know that the children’s chorus is always an important part of the show. The problem is that children were unvaccinated at the time this year’s production went into rehearsals. Still, the kids play a part. Joe announces that they will be taking part via Zoom. A screen is raised and the children perform — presumably from another part of the building.
No doubt traditionalists will bristle at having the Revels set in a bar in the present day. And the children’s chorus participating on a screen? Outrageous! Don’t worry, Swanson has anticipated these persnickety concerns. About 15 minutes in, an “explanatory” time-tripping conceit arrives. We are visited by the Master of the Revels (Jaster) and his team from 1621 (the year the pub was built), including his accountant (Gibson) and the charming and energetic flunky (Mandell) along with a mask-wearing group of singers and dancers in Jacobean dress. The visitors from the past have arrived, they tell us, on official business. The 2020 pause in live performances of the Revels has suspended their license for “intertemporal revelry.” An official audit is necessary. Absurd? Absolutely. Rita declares that this historical hoo-ha is “simply beyond belief.” But the visitors are ready with a defense. The master turns to the audience: “The willing suspension of disbelief. All in favor?” The audience responds with a resounding “Aye”and our fun trip begins.
As usual, the 2021 version of the Revels combines old and new carols and dances. The highlighted musical group in this year’s version is The Echoes (Barbara Allen Hill, soprano; Wei-En Chan, countertenor; Matthew Wright, tenor, archlute, and Renaissance guitar).
A standout segment in this year’s Revels begins with the 17th-century ballad “To Drive the Cold Winter Away,” which features the Echoes, Coffin, and eventually the entire chorus. It moves quickly into “Chariots,” a lively carol written in 1995 that features accordionist/singer Alex Cumming and the full cast. The lineup ends with the “Boar’s Head Carol” and Wei-En Chan’s soaring countertenor.
In order to ensure Covid distancing, there’s no intermission following “The Lord of the Dance.“ But Sanders Theatre is filled with video projections of the celebration in previous years, when leader David Coffin and the entire audience snaked their way into the lobby for singing and fellowship. In the 2021 version, the audience sways in place — but the energy is still infectious.
Once again, under challenging circumstances, the Revels cast and crew has pulled off a rousing good show. The second half of the production features some wonderful moments of song, including a trio of well-known tunes featuring Saxon, and a silly new version of St. George and the Dragon written by Regie Gibson.
The technical aspects in the second year of the pandemic version of the Revels have been strengthened. The four-camera recording effectively transmits the live show’s energy. In particular, Jeff Adelberg’s lighting design works both in-person and for the online version. The lighting for the sword dance by the Crazy 8z is a visual standout.
The Revels mark the shortest day and the darkest night of the year. It is hard not to feel the irony of that timing keenly now. It feels as if the country is trying to emerge from one of its most traumatic periods — upwards of three-quarters of a million Americans are dead and there have been more than 250,000 new cases a day for the last several weeks. In the face of the global resurgence of the disease, The Revels supplies more than festivity — it gives hope. As one of the entertainment’s traditional Yule poems — Susan Cooper’s “The Shortest Day” — reminds us:
David Greenham is an adjunct lecturer of Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the executive director of the Maine Arts Commission. He has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for more than 30 years.