Christmas comes but once a year, but when it comes it brings good cheer! Celebrating its 33rd year in marvelous merriment the Washington Revels are proud to present The Christmas Revels of 2015, a medieval celebration of the winter solstice in music, dance, and drama. Directed by Roberta Gasbarre with Musical Direction by Elizabeth Anne Fulford, this wondrous seasonal tradition is filled with fun for the whole family. Featuring performers that span generations upon the stage, a heaping helping of holiday happiness is plentiful and abound for all.
A magnificent sight awaits every eager-eyed member of the audience once the curtain is drawn back to reveal a proper stone medieval castle crafted by Set Designer Colin K. Bills. Draped with ivy and the colors of late winter, Bills crafts a fantastical atmosphere for all of the merry-making that will soon ensue upon the stage. Doubling as the show’s Lighting Designer, Bills affects the illusion of natural light to the festivities for the daylight hours but appropriately blends in blues, purples, and shadowy notions for when the full moon rises and night overcomes the celebration.
Costume Designer Rosemary Pardee along with Children’s Costume Designer Cecily Pilzer capture the essence of the period. As if time itself were frozen from the fascinating period of the Renaissance, Pardee and Pilzer work together to have lovely garments of earthen color and velvety texture that well suit each of the dozens of individuals upon the stage. Outfitting both human villagers and wood-sprite ‘green-men’ creatures, Pardee’s and Pilzer’s are enchantingly enhanced by the Mask Design of Leah and Shane Odom of Mythical Designs. Topping off the couture of the show is Milliner Linda McHugh, providing savvy and suitable caps for all who find themselves in need of a cap.
The striking aesthetic of the show is not the most sensational trick the revels have up their sleeves when it comes to visually stunning work. Puppet Master Alex Vernon has fabricated a devastatingly gorgeous life-size horse-and-rider puppet to arrive during “The Uninvited Guest” scene of the program. Operated by Patrick Hendren, Jason Noone, and Darrow Sherman, this trio of puppeteers animate Vernon’s creation with majestic brilliance, riding the creature onto the stage in such a life-like fashion that the audience is taken aback with gasps of astonishment. Vernon’s creation is frighteningly realistic with a foreboding essence in its skeletal framework, looking like a Thestral risen straight from the planes of the netherworld, serving as the epitome of winter’s death before spring.
With joviality in his soul that burbles up from his toes, the leader of The Christmas Revels take form in a human called Greg Lewis. Serving as the main interactive guide with the audience between the players, the dancers, and the musicians, Lewis engages with all present, inviting and encouraging them to sing along at specified intervals throughout the performance. This unique involvement of the audience makes it fun for all when it comes to some of the more festive carols, particularly “The Twelve Days of Christmas” which becomes a hilarious practice of calisthenics and frantic oversized gestures much to everyone’s amusement.
Warm, crisp traditional carols are piped— and sometimes quite literally— throughout the program. Serving as the harbingers of the Christmas spirit, The Royal Brass (Robert Birch, Bryan Bourne, Benno Fritz, Fred Marcellus, Don Spinelli, and Sharon Tiebert) play a myriad of numbers throughout the program that echo with that undeniably familiar sound of yore. The sextet leads the group sing-a-longs as well, offering a rich and robust underscoring to the addition of the audience’s voices. Adding to the musical festivities, Piffaro— The Renaissance Band (a quintet comprised of Adam Bregman, Joan Kimball, Christa Patton, Charles Wines, and Robert Wiemken) takes up a plethora of period-historic instruments to imbue the program with a proper musical feel. A truly unique musical experience, between The Royal Brass and Piffaro, the show is lively and delivers a most pleasing aural experience.
What sort of merry-making festival could there be when it comes to Christmas and the Winter Solstice without singing and dancing. The Solstice Singers (comprised of nearly four-dozen singers) as well as the Yuletide Teens (over a dozen youth singers) and the Holly & Ivy Children (another almost two dozen even younger youth singers) provide wonderful sounds throughout the performance. The singers take up the floor in dance as well, both for the King and the Woodland Queen early on and continuously throughout the program. It’s Musical Director Elizabeth Anne Fulford and Children’s Musical Director H. Katherine Toton that guide these enormous groups through the waves of holiday sounds and help them stay the course through the trickier numbers. “Gower Wassail” invites a rich and robust celebratory mood to the stage from the Solstice Singers while there is nothing sweeter than the cherubic voices of the Holly & Ivy Children harkening the carol “Let the Song of Praise Resound.”
Featured as “The Players” there are four actors appearing in consistent roles throughout the performance. Shane Odom as the King, Gwen Grastorf as the Woodland Queen, Mark Jaster as the King’s Fool, and Sabrina Mandell as the Queen’s Fool, this quartet of able-bodied spirits rounds out the brilliance of the program on the whole. Odom is a noble king, when taking to his dance upon the floor with his subjects. Grastorf is a graciously regal creature, possessing the energy of earthen spirits for her grandiose arrival up the aisle of the house. Moving with grace and nobility, Grastorf is the splendid embodiment of nature in winter. Her slow and deliberate motions mirror that of the icy outlook of the season. Radiant like winter’s snow with a glistening light, Grastorf occasionally lends her voice to the musical affairs of the program, enhancing numbers like “Ivy, Chief of Trees” to sound exceptionally melodious.
A pair of fools more finally met, ne’er have crossed the stages yet, of Washington or any place, these fools so filled with comic grace. Master of tomfoolery, kinetic comedian Mark Jaster brings his iconic mime work to the stage attending Odom’s pristinely kept king character. Appearing late in the show as during the Mummer’s Play as ‘The Dragon’ we get even more of Jaster’s impressive mastery of movement to delight the eye. Watch him closely during any scene wherein he’s off to the side— particularly “Gower Wassail” as his comic shenanigans are most entertaining.
If the whimsy and wonder that is delightfully contagious especially at Christmas time could be ensouled into one human spirit, it is captured delectably in Sabrina Mandell in the moment when she begins bouncing, flouncing, and floating about at the top of “Dances from Terpsichore.” An earnest jovial spirit, truly sprightly in her dancing and facial expressions, Mandell radiates the meaning of merriment throughout the entire pageant of the program. Engaging with the children, the audience, and the other performers of the program, Mandell— like all members of The Christmas Revels— is a delight to watch on stage.
With over 100 individuals involved in the performance it would be impossible to mention them all, so it’s time to give a hail and a hearty huzzah to the Washington Revels and all who make such a glorious and festive event possible. Come, celebrate with kith and kin, and The Christmas Revels will surely welcome in all guests with open hearts for this fantastical holiday experience.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission
The Christmas Revels plays a limited-engagement of 8 performances through December 13, 2015 in the Lisner Auditorium at George Washington University— 730 21st Street NW in Washington, DC. For tickets please call the box office at (800) 595-4849 or purchase them online.