The Christmas Revels at Sanders Theater (Cambridge MA), 14 December 2012

revels-coverThe Christmas Revels is a special event, an annual tradition on par with performances of the Nutcracker, only tailored to lovers of folk traditions. After 42 years, it has accreted tradition of its own, which helps audience members to feel like part of the holiday community — which is the point of the Revels. The culture on which the performance focuses changes from year to year but the basic shape of the performance — and its professionalism — remains constant.

This year’s focus is on Irish culture, and the conceit of the show is of Irish emigrants traveling in steerage in 1907, leaving home for America. A few characters front the performance: in this case, long-time master of ceremonies David Coffin plus Steven Barkhimer, Mary Casey, and Bill Meleady. Additional performers include Irish musicians the Rattling Brogues (including piper Paddy Keenan formerly of the Bothy Band, guitarist Mark Roberts and fiddler Sheila Falls Keohane), step-dancers from the O’Shea-Chaplin Academy of Irish Dance, the Cambridge Symphonic Brass Ensemble, and the Pinewoods Morris Men, and the adult and children’s choruses.

Irish traditions are familiar — especially for a Boston-based audience — so there’s less novelty than usual, but more identification with the traditions.

Notably new this year: an American Sign Language interpreter accompanied David Coffin in teaching songs before the performance. Thus, the climax of each performance, which is a rousing performer-and-audience call of “Welcome Yule,” this year included the gestures that sign the words in ASL. The expansion to include more people within the community is characteristic of the Revels philosophy.

In the gorgeous warmth of Harvard’s Sanders Theater, with beautiful rich woodwork, the stage is simply set this year, indicating the deck of the R.M.S. Carpathia, sailing from Liverpool to New York.

The beginning of the performance shows us families filing aboard the ship, and children receiving tags from the Welsh ship’s purser (Steven Barkhimer). And the first words introduce us to the Irish Poet (Bill Meleady), quoting the poet William Butler Yeats and introducing both the sorrow of leaving home, the hope for a better life, and the courage required to sail into the unknown.

After several songs that introduce the choruses, we come to the first of several songs on which the audience is invited to participate. The familiar standard, Deck the Halls, is given a fresh start by being first sung in Welsh before switching to the more familiar English words. The liner notes point out that the song had its roots in a Welsh carol published a good century before the English version appeared.

After some set dancing, the next highlight is the song “Colcannon” (also known as “Little Skillet Pot”) was beautifully rendered by Mary Casey.

Another highlight involves the story of “The Soul Cages,” a story taken from a collection published by Yeats entitled “Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry”. As the story takes us to the bottom of the sea as guests of a merman, we’re treated to the fanciful and ridiculous Lobster Quadrille. Dancers dressed as crabs and lobsters step lightly through the pattern.

Several sets of Irish music are delightful, including the harp and Uillean pipes. Both sets start slow and ramp up both the tempo and energy. For Bostonians, this is not novel — it’s the music that I hear at Irish sessions around town today. But live music is always a pleasure, and it’s well done here by the Rattling Brogues.

The young and energetic Irish step dancers were a crowd favorite. I’ve spent too long with Riverdance, its corollaries, and many dance school performances, but although the step dancing was not to my personal taste, it was skillful and well performed.

The second half of the performance starts on a darker note, acknowledging the darkness of midwinter and the danger of encountering storms while crossing the Atlantic. In this context, the Poet’s recitation of the “Deer Cry” or “Lorica” prayer is powerful and touching. The prayer, attributed to Saint Patrick, calls on the elements and land of Ireland to protect the faithful.

The ending, during which The Statue of Liberty hoves into sight and Artistic Director George Emlen’s “Hymn for a New Land” celebrates their entry into New York harbor. As always, the show closes with Susan Cooper’s poem “The Shortest Day”, followed by the cry of “Welcome Yule!” and the singing of “The Sussex Mummer’s Carol.”

This year, the Abbotts Bromley Horn Dance was omitted. Admittedly, it would be tricky fitting that into a play about early-20th-century Irish passengers crossing the Atlantic. The dance is very rooted on land, in the magic of a moonlit forest, and it is not at all Irish. (In this respect, the English traditional Morris dance also felt shoehorned in, although a narrative link via the British captain of the ship was provided for it.)

The performance does what it sets out to do, creating a sense of community with Irish songs, dances, and stories as a celebration of midwinter. It warms the heart.

The Cambridge version of the Revels this year is entirely sold out, although the CD of music, Strike the Harp, is available on the Revels website.

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