Arts: ‘The Revels’ Lends Medieval Touch to Holiday Season By KEN BULLOCKSpecial to the Planet

Friday December 09, 2005

The Christmas Revels celebrates the Winter Solstice—and its 20th anniversary—with songs, dances and stories of medieval England for 10 weekend matinee and evening shows, Dec. 9-18, at Oakland’s Scottish Rite Theater by Lake Merritt. 

With Ensemble Alcatr az as special musical guests, and its own tradition of audience and cast joining together in singing “The Sussex Mummer’s Carol” and dancing in the aisles to “The Lord of the Dance,” The Christmas Revels turns traditional rituals and folk drama into a com munity event for the Bay Area to welcome the Yuletide.  

Harkening back to the festivities at Haddon Hall in Derbyshire in the 15th and 16th centuries, The Revels will bring to the fore the musical group that combines the talents of players featured in pa st years, Ensemble Alcatraz, with soprano Susan Rode Morris, medieval harper Cheryl Ann Fulton, recorder and psaltery player Kit Higginson, Shira Kammen on vielle and rebec and percussionist Peter Maund. 

This presentation of The Christmas Revels also hon ors the memory of Dr. Elizabeth Lloyd Mayer (1947-2005), longtime artistic director and founder of Revels in the Bay Area, credited with having made the show an annual event for the region. 

Mayer once said, “We need those wild and holy expressions of wh o we are which lift us out of isolation and into contact with each other. We need moments that inject the ordinary with awe and engage our capacities for the extraordinary. Celebration does that. And Revels does that.” 

Succeeding Dr. Mayer as artistic director is longtime Revels stage director David Parr, professor of theater at San Francisco City College, who has also directed at West Bay Opera and other Bay Area theaters. 

With ornate costumes (designed by Callie Floor), constant outpourings of period music and song, elaborate courtly processionals and more rustic folk frolics performed by a cast of both children and adults, The Christmas Revels plays on many moods and tones of the holidays, from solemn ritual to raucous burlesque, involving each perfo rmer and every spectator in a group celebration, a theatrical performance witnessed and added to by all present. 

The 1,300-seat Scottish Rite Theater itself adds immeasurably to the atmosphere of revival. Built in 1923, with coliseum seating like tiers f rom which the audience looks down on the stage, the theater binds together the spectators with all the different elements of the performance in a space where the acoustics are almost tangible.  

The set by Peter Crompton will replicate the banquet hall of Haddon Hall, a baronial manor founded in 1170 and added onto until the Tudor period. 

“That banqueting hall hosted events for centuries,” Parr said. “It’s kind of a metaphor for Revels itself, a locus where people come to celebrate. And the first Bay Are a Revels, in 1986, was set at Haddon Hall. We feature some of the music from that first show, too. There’ll be our familiar acts: sword and Morris dancers, the Mummers Play of St. George and the Dragon, with quite an amazing dragon, and an additional piec e, making it a two-dragon Revels: ‘The Laidly Worm of Spindlestone Hewgh.’ Ensemble Alcatraz will perform their own repertoire and serve as house band.” 

With the milestone of a 20th anniversary and the passing of their founder, the company continues to l ook toward the future as the company celebrates its tradition. 

“She was our inspiration for so many years,” Parr said of Mayer. “In a sense every show was dedicated to her.” 

The company has performed spring and fall programs at Julia Morgan Theatre to celebrate May Day and All Hallows-All Saints. And a summer solstice party for The Revels chorus may become a community event with a parade and a Maypole, Parr said. 

The Christmas Revels began 35 years ago in Cambridge, Mass., when Jack Langstaff, who had staged earlier events in New York, founded the series of annual performances, which he said were meant to recreate the Christmas of his youth, when people came together to sing the old songs. 

“Revels is about a time and a place,” said Parr. “This year—an d in our first year—it’s the late middle ages at Haddon Hall. Other years, it’s been medieval Galicia or Elizabethan London. Revels is about the big cycles of life people have always celebrated. So many count on us and we’ll be there for them.” 


The Chris tmas Revels will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 9; at 1 and 5 p.m. Dec. 10 and Dec. 11; 7:30 p.m. Dec. 16; and at 1 and 5 p.m. Dec. 17and Dec. 18. $19-$42. Scottish Rite Theater, 1547 Lakeside Dr., Oakland. For more information, see www.calrevels.org or call (415) 773-1181. 



Photo by Sheppard Ferguson: Father Christmas of The Christmas Revels, playing ten shows at Oakland’s Scottish Rite Temple this season.