Christmas Revels, Sanders Theater, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S.A., Through December 2004

Tradition is a funny thing. The stories we tell our children, the customs we perpetuate, can be bizarre: Incongruous and even alarming events (the tooth fairy reaching under your pillow while you sleep?) are accepted simply because they are familiar. And nonsensical stories (red-nosed reindeer?) gain meaning from sheer repetition. Christmas is one of our most tradition-laden events.

So one must understand that The Christmas Revels is not merely theater--Revels is a holiday show that focuses on the traditions of a different culture/country each year, and features singing, dancing, music, and storytelling, amid just enough of a storyline to hold the whole thing together. After 34 years, Revels has its own traditions, and while it highlights a different culture each year, it also includes the culture of the players and audience. This is most evident in the weird and mysterious Abbotts Bromley Horn Dance, which has nothing to do with the French-Canadian culture featured this year, but after the initial surprise I simply didn't care. It enchanted me, and I'll gladly return next year, for this dance, for the communal singing, and for a chance to yell, "Welcome Yule!" in good company.

That said, the very English tradition of Morris dancing looked weird in the middle of a show about Quebecois songs, dances and stories. On the other hand, in places where both cultures overlap -- such as in the mummer's play or singing certain Christmas carols -- the blending is smooth and welcome.

David Coffin, in fine voice as always, led the audience in several songs, including two melodious rounds. Singing ability isn't a prerequisite for buying tickets for the Revels, but from the glorious sound of the audience, you'd think it was.

Narrator Debra Wise was always brief, but funny and lively. The writers of the show manage to include a great deal of French language either through mime or alternating French and English lyrics or context. The set and costumes and props evoke French Canadian culture, from the big wood stove in the background to the very clever canoes.

The canoes deserve a special note. The storyline follows a group of pioneers leaving home to travel by canoe to far-off logging camps, and their return for the holidays via a magical, diabolical, flying canoe. In other years, the Revels have had inventive props, but the canoes here, whether paddled through water or air, are remarkably ingenious and evocative of the long long journey.

Still, the props aren't the main attraction. The singing by the children and adults was very well-arranged and performed, but the instrumental music and the dancing were the highlight of the program for me. The set dances had my neighbor and me itching to join in. The tunes and songs by Pierre Chartrand, Éric Favreau, Bernard Simard, and Stephane Landry of the Quebecois group, Danse Candence, were lively. Dance bands like this one are a sign that the Quebecois tradition is alive and well.

The stepdancing by Chartrand and the Revels' Judy Erickson and Gillian Steward was also phenomenal, particularly the climactic "Brandy."

The other major holiday events on offer in the area are the Boston Ballet's Nutcracker and the Radio City Christmas Spectacular (complete with Rockettes costumed as reindeer). And while the en pointe battles between rats and toy soldiers hold some allure, and although the Rockettes do plenty of high-stepping, what folkie or Canadian wouldn't prefer Chartrand's dancing? I'd choose the tradition of the Revels any day, but especially at this time of year when I turn to the traditions that speak directly to the heart.

[For more Green Man coverage of the Revels, click here and here.]


[Vonnie Carts-Powell ]