As much as I crave the silence and darkness of the winter solstice, I also need celebration and connection. And this year the tradition of having that at the Revels, as we do every year, seemed impossible. With everything shut down because of the virulent virus, how could we partake of the joy of togetherness? How could we “gather” if we could not all be in the same place, holding hands while we danced the Lord of the Dance and hearing one another sing? It wouldn’t be the same, and it might just be too sad. I grumbled, and dithered about buying tickets. Finally as the solstice drew near, I went to the California Revels website and looked at the program. Within minutes I was on the verge of tears, not unusual this year, but still. All right, I thought, we will see if we can make this work. I bought tickets at the last minute and signed us up, a family across three households, to join with the Revels faithful.
On the day of the show, I was excited with the old anticipation, and put my glad rags on by noon, just as I always have when we would load up the family and drive the hour to Oakland to the theater. We all had Revels fervor, amongst our households, tempered by a little apprehension. But oh! the triumph of learning how to cast it from my phone to the big screen! And the “stage” appeared, a facsimile of the church we gathered in last year. The storyline was simple but timely: two teenage girls are expressing their frustration and boredom with the lockdown restrictions. They wish they had a magic wand to make it all go away, and don’t we all? But one of the girls really does have a magic wand, bestowed on her at the end of last year’s show, a passing of the torch, as it were, and she uses it to call up the spirits of the past, a pastiche of old Revels shows. For longtime Revelers, this was a delight, to see some old favorites, one being the Appalachian dancers from the 2014 American folk Revels, here shown in a spinning circle that swept the women off their feet!
The slow pace of the beginning seemed to mirror our own searching and disorientation this year, looking to past good times for answers. But then we knew we were in the here and now, when a momentarily masked Shay Black appeared to regale the young seeker by reprising his song as the stationmaster in the 2010 Irish Revels. In a trice he was leading us all in singing “Here’s a Health to the Company,” a most welcome tune to beguile my memory in the days to follow.
Let’s drink and be merry, all grief to refrain
For we may or might never all meet here again
What better wish could there be, that we have health, and may meet again? But during a 15th century dance tune, a dark specter began to stalk the singers and musicians, an ominous CGI black mist/dragon swirling around them as they tried to dodge and weave to stay out of its path. And aren’t we all doing that dance these days?
Then we were with the death dancers, as seen in the 2012 production (and tickled was my daughter Chrysalis Rose the makeup artist to see her “Death” makeup again). “O Fortuna” is a song about the wheel of fortune, the circling of fate that brings some souls up and casts others down. It is a weird tune, from the 13th century Carmina Burana, and here it was played with a strange 9/8 rhythm, to take hold in the mind and repeat, repeat. It was chilling to see all the death figures dance with the three fools and the celestial bodies. The dance of death is always with us, just out of sight, which we would prefer to forget, much to Death’s amusement.
The second act plunged right into the plague theme, with the mournful “Nottamun Town” accompanied by a collage of medieval imagery of the Black Death. The tune itself is twisty and oblique, with its minor key and reversals in the lyrics, a sharp example of how our world has been disrupted, the mundus inversus – the world turned upside down.
Then we all caught our breaths as the horn dancers of the Golden Ring Morris, filmed in Muir Grove, stepped through their mysterious 900-year old Abbot’s Bromley dance, masked and solemn. I think the tears began to flow then and went on pretty much to the end. I couldn’t sing for the lump in my throat from held-back weeping, but the kids reminded me that I’m often like this at Revels.
“Dona Nobis Pacem” was lovingly done with all the singers’ faces in ovals, like old-fashioned portrait frames arranged on a family tree, with Fred Goff elegantly leading the singers.
The new beauty this year was an extraordinarily moving song presented by the Windborn Singers and the songwriter, Zoe Mulford. “Songs Stay Sung” is so poignant, everyone who has heard is undone by it. And thanks to the magic of recording, and the generosity of the singers, I am able to share it here with you. In the show it was visually accompanied by the young girl observing the seasons come and go on a beautiful tree, like a Tree of Time. And even the appearance of the constellations, and the solar analemma, the infinity symbol that traces the sun’s movement through the sky in time, echoed the lyrics.
And all we do may be undone, but love stays love and songs stay sung.
And astronomers could never chart the constellations of the heart
For lovers part and lovers pine, but the love stays love till the end of time.
Lest we get too serious, there was a suitably silly mummer’s play, with its familiar themes of death and rebirth, each mummer in his or her own frame but swords crossing from one to another, and the kitchen stove in frame behind the scenery-chewing dragon, all as cheesy as you like. And there, among many doctors from years past, when the mummers invariably call for a doctor in the house, was a cameo appearance by Dr. Fauci. It is 2020, after all.
After a sweet segment of the children singing “All Through the Night,” a grandmother’s voice told a story to her granddaughter, years and years hence, about how it was when we survived the plague, how it seemed the world went dim, when we lost dancing and singing for a time. It was an emotional poetic offering byLynn Ungar, the longtime chorus member who also wrote the luminous script.
None of this would have been possible without the magic of modern technology, as well as the old-fashioned skills of the designers and artists, producers and volunteers who worked tirelessly “backstage” to bring this show to fruition. Fréréric Boulay of Oaktown Productions, whose setup is shown here, was the wizard of video, and Tod Nixon magicked the audio to sound just right. Jeri Reed did an incredible job as the new artistic director, hitting the ground running, as it were, with a crew that included the invisible but indispensable Michelle Sullivan as Production Manager, Music Director and Associate Shira Kammen and Anne Bingham Goess, amazing visuals both hand-drawn and digitally animated by Peter Crompton, costumes by Callie Floor. And kudos to the brilliant acting stints by the young Meara McCarthy and Grace Connallon. And honestly, dozens and hundreds more, musicians and writers and designers and board members whose work is unseen but without whom this show could never be created, on screen or on a stage. This year’s production was a mountain of details and challenges, to keep everyone safe and healthy and still bring forth the signature Revels enchantment. Well done, everyone.
It was sweet after the show ended to talk about it with all six of us on our Zoom screens, separately but together. I was still wiping my eyes and marveling at how the magic came through the screen, but the next morning it came to me while I was humming and warbling the songs over my tea and oatmeal, just like every other year when Revels has cast the solstice spell for me.
I should have known it would work. My first clue were those tears that flooded my eyes when I looked at the program, before I bought the tickets. What I finally remembered is that it began, for me, with a recording. I first found Revels 28 years ago, two years after I had made my first winter solstice card. I was looking through a catalog called Chinaberry that sold children’s books and toys, and saw a listing for an audiocassette tape called The Christmas Revels. I sent away for it and it was not long before I fell in love with every track on that cassette. I played it over and over again. Then in early December my husband went to a water conference and met up with an engineer friend, who told him that he needed to get back to Oakland for the opening of the Christmas Revels show that he was singing in. I was astounded to discover there was a live show and that it was near us! From then on, we were devoted to the Christmas Revels, every single year.
I still have that tape. I hardly have a machine to play it on anymore, but it is a talisman of how I came to understand the necessity of the old ways. The past is alive in us. It runs in our blood, when we feel a certain way at hearing a song, or find our feet stamping out a rhythm when we are stirred by some music we might never have heard before. Those are our ancestors, resounding in our deep mind and memory. That is what Revels brings us: the old traditions and patterns and ways of being to mark the turning of the wheel of time, the darkness, and the return of the light.
This year more than any other, I felt the medieval roots of this show, how it is a kind of modern, vernacular mystery play, showing through song, dance, readings, and enactments the yearly cycles of life that the earth brings us through her seasons. And of course, life cannot be life without death. It is part of the cycle. We cannot escape it, but while we are here we can honor it as the place to which we will all go. Until then we can have joy and connection and love.
As the young seeker says in the play, “What if the magic is real? What if singing a prayer for peace really puts peace in our hearts? What if singing to the apple trees helps them to grow? What if lighting fires at midnight or dancing at dawn really keeps the light and the dark in balance? What if all those people from way back were on to something, and they need us to carry it on?”
Her friend asks, “Is that the kind of magic that gets us out of all this?”
And she replies, “No, it’s the magic that can get us into all of this. You. Me. Them.” She gestures at us, the audience. “The spirits. All of us. We can’t get out of anything, but we can get through whatever comes. I mean, think about it. All those people back then–the spirits–they lost everything. I mean, they’re dead. But they’re still here. The songs and the dances and the stories–we still have them. They gave them to us so they could keep living. So we could keep living.”
Several of these images, as you can see, are screenshot captures, and thus not all that sharp. The company has made the recording available to the public until Twelfth Night, January 5, for the generous price of $10. This is an opportunity to introduce someone to the magic of Revels from the comfort of home, as I know several friends have done this year, able to attend from afar. This may not be your cup of tea, but let me remind you that the poem I see shared over and over again, every winter solstice, for years now, “The Shortest Day” by Susan Cooper, was written for and out of a Revels experience. There is no more quintessential Revels liturgy than this, and it is read without fail at every Revels performance around the country, every December, for decades now.
Or you can visit the California Revels website and make a donation to the ongoing work this company does to bring us the magic, or visit the Store, where some of us are offering our wares to help you celebrate the season.
This year and every year, Welcome Yule!