Christmas Revels, Sanders Theater, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, December 15, 2002
"The best part," my 7-year-old companion declared at the end of the Revels, "were the plays. And the crow dance. And the kids' songs. And the shadow puppets." He nodded, decisively. "Oh, and the guy on the rope. That was the best, too!"
This, the 32nd annual Christmas Revels in Cambridge, MA, concentrates on the music and heritage of Armenia and Georgia. And the parts that my youthful companion didn't appreciate -- the polyphonic singing and some of the more romantic or more subtle acting -- I found delightful as well.
The show opens with mysteries: intricately patterned rugs hang above the stage, and a flat medieval-flavored Noah's Arc sits alone on stage. The front of the program is printed in another language, another alphabet -- presumably Armenian. The Ark comes to rest on Mount Ararat, and Noah's wife weaves the first rug, incorporating all of life and the important symbols of Armenian culture. The dances, the songs, the costumes, and the storytelling are all well-executed. (My son especially wanted me to mention the stuffed chicken that one of the "villagers" carried with him.)
The Revels entertains while respecting (rather than co-opting) the traditions on which it builds. It is a spectacle, and like all theater, the idea is to spell us, to create a brief magic of belief and ritual. In cases like this, where there is no ongoing plot to pull us into the magic, recurring characters and pacing carry the show along. Both Paula Plum (the narrator), and David Coffin (the song leader) engaged the audience.
Haig Faniants, who plays Sayut Nova, the "King of Songs" has a lovely, lovely voice and was a delight in several of the skits. The singing of Ani Zargarian of the Arev Armenian Folk Ensemble was also lovely, although we see and hear less from her.
Slack-rope walker Sam Johnson was also a pleasure for both adults and kids. His facial expressions and body language made his performances as much about acting as gymnastic ability, and the performance without words spanned cultures.
The audience seemed to consist mostly of those who come to Revels each year, familiar with the format and the songs. But some of the audience was Armenians, come to share a celebration of their culture. The Armenian gentleman sitting next to me complimented the pronunciation, and said that yes, he recognizes some of these songs. This can be a delicate balance to find: I've seen too many scholarly-rather-than-fun traditional performances and too many entertainments that co-opt and twist traditions (Disney, anyone?)
The combination of Revels traditions and Armenian traditions did get a bit odd at times. Moving from a powerful but spare Armenian song by Haig Faniants to an enthusiastic "Joy to the World" sing-along was a shock. The very English traditions of the Mummer's Play and the Morris dancing weren't entirely successfully blended with the cultural theme of the rest of the show.
The finale, The Sussex Mummers carol, was another case in point. But "We always end with it," pointed out David Coffin. "We tried not to, one year, but the audience stood up and sang it anyway."
The Christmas Revels take place in 12 cities, coordinated by Revels Inc.