THE BANKER WINS AGAIN This might be the biggest dragon Revels have put on stage, but he’s no match for a brolly and a rolled-up Financial Times.
This year's production of The Christmas Revels (at Sanders Theatre through December 29) is Revels' 40th, and yet it has one thing I'd wager has never been seen on a Christmas Revels stage before: nylons. Make that two things: it also has ghosts. A lot, of course, is held over from previous productions: the morris dancing, the children's games, "The Lord of the Dance," the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, "Dona nobis pacem," the mummers' play, "The Shortest Day," and the Sussex Mummers' Carol. But what's old never seems to get old, and what's new seems better than ever.
The set-up is deceptively simple. The place is Derbyshire, the year in 1920, and John Manners (Tim Sawyer), the ninth Duke of Rutland, is giving his wife, Kathleen (Harriet Bridges), and his children, Charles (Jacob Kiely-Song) and Frances (Lauren Curtis), a look at the dilapidated family manse, Haddon Hall, before it's torn down to make room for a new motorway that'll enable people to drive from Nottingham to Manchester in no time. The place is covered in sheets, and the wife and kids are anything but impressed. Then, in a ghostly half-light, the "residents" begin to tumble out from what seem like secret panels. A Fool in motley (Emma Jaster) capering and cutting up. A very cockney 'ead 'ouse Parlourmaid (Sabrina Mandell). The first Duke of Rutland (Mark Jaster), whose name is also John Manners. And English men and women of all ages — that is, Normans, Saxons, Plantagenets, Tudors, Cavaliers, Georgians, Victorians, Edwardians. They've been celebrating the winter solstice for the past millennium or so, and they're not about to stop now.
Duke #9 has other ideas, of course: as he tells the would-be merrymakers, while looking pointedly at the audience, "Revels cost money. Revels are not cheap. The cost of keeping this place has become ridiculous." (Has Harvard raised the rent on Sanders Theatre?) He takes no notice of how the gorgeous array of costumes — the chain mail, the burlap, the slashed velvet, the silk taffeta — lays out the history of England (right down to his own natty plus fours). For the audience, however, it's a visual feast. And this ingenious conceit from Revels also affords the production a millennium of English song and dance to draw on. It's like "The Best of The Christmas Revels," from mediæval hymns to Renaissance dances to London street cries ("White young turnips and parsnips!" "Prime potatoes!") to the music-hall ditty "Let's all go down the Strand!"
At first, Duke #9 won't let his family do more than look on; they don't even get to drink the ale they're given. But one by one they're drawn in: Charles takes part in a morris dance, Emma plays the hen in the children's game "Tomorrow the Fox Will Come to Town"; Kathleen, who sings and has an interest in women's choral music, leads the Spirit of Haddon Women in "There Is No Rose of Swych Vertu." John himself turns down an invitation to join in "The Lord of the Dance" (prompting Duke #1 to observe, "The dance is not for everyone/Not all can move in time") and drags his reluctant brood off to the motorcar. By the beginning of the second act, however, they're back (ghostly hands, it seems, have no difficulty removing distributor caps), and bedding down for the night in front of the hearth, a kind of holy family whose sleep is untroubled by the Derbyshire children's singing of "In the Bleak Midwinter" or the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance taking place all around them.