Christmas Revels, “a theatrical celebration of the Winter Solistice,” with a dazzling array of the performing arts onstage at Oakland’s Scottish Rite Theater by Lake Merritt and community singing and line-dancing at the conclusion of the two acts of every show, has become a beloved holiday tradition in the 23 years California Revels has produced the annual event here.
This year, Revels revisits a medieval European setting with a new staging of their 1995 The King and the Fool, featuring popular clown and comic actor Geoff Hoyle, a familiar face to longtime Revelers.
Shows are at 7:30 p.m. Friday, and at 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday afternoons, Dec. 12-14 and 19-21.
Director David Parr talked about working with Geoff Hoyle, the Bay Area-based British performer, who (among other things) originated the role of Zazu in The Lion King on Broadway, clowned with Bill Irwin in The Pickle Family Circus and has performed as a featured artist on national and Bay Area stages from Cirque Du Soleil to Teatro ZinZanni and Berkeley Rep.
“I think it’s the sixth time we’ve worked together, and it’s come full circle,” Parr said. “Geoff’s been visiting different iterations of the archetypal fool, like Arlecchino in our 2000 Commedia Dell ‘Arte Revels—and even in its more modern guises, like Victorian Music Hall and the Christmas Panto star Garibaldi last year. I can’t say enough good things about Geoff as a professional. They say a star brings up everybody and everything around him, and Geoff does that. He also shares with us a great love of everything the Revels experience is—which isn’t always easy to see from the inside.”
In the new staging of The King and the Fool, Parr himself plays a king “this time around,” entertaining his court as the Yuletide’s coming on. A bell tolls, and it’s announced that a mysterious visitor is coming, whom the king must meet in combat. The king loses, and gives his regal powers to the fool. There’s a period of darkness, then a child confronts the mysterious visitor (a 16-foot knight puppet by Berkeley’s Annie Hallett) and rings a bell, revealing the real nature of the Black Knight: a skeleton, which the fool engages in a Danse Macabre.
“We have light and dark, high and low, king and fool, order and discord—the idea that people have to undergo a period of dark leadership to emerge in the light,” Parr commented. “In the aftermath of the elections, there’s some play with the audience. I even seeded in a line or two about eight years of darkness.”
Parr also mentioned a different political tradition embedded in a yuletide tradition from Ireland that’ll be enacted, “The Hunting of the Wren,” in which boys with sticks would walk door to door, and present householders with a dead wren in a cage. “Apparently, a wren, ‘the King of Birds,’ was startled by an Irish sneak attack on English forces, warning them, so the English won the battle. The wren represents the English king: the grim reality underlying a charming childhood song.”
Parr then focused on Hoyle’s dance with the skeleton. “Patti Swanson originally wrote this for Geoff, at the Revels in Cambridge, where Larry Busoni did the part. The Danse Macabre, in which Geoff animates the skeleton as he dances with it, was deemed too long before, and cut. This time we trimmed it, a delicate process as he’s up there, creating it as he goes along. That he trusts me to help him shape it—that someone of his stature is still exploring, still discovering comedy—makes it an honor to be a part of his process.”
Parr also noted that “the music has evolved, as the whole organization has, with a more medieval feel. Shura Kamin made some new arrangements. And Chris Caswell, the Celtic Harp maker in Albany, will be with us to play harp andearly instruments; there’ll be the Abbots Bromley dance and courtly dancing—and The Lord of the Dance, of course!—and mumming, guest artists in addition to the usual suspects, and both adult and children’s choruses. The children’s chorus is especially important; the whole show’s framed as a children’s story.”
Talking about the continuing commercialization of the holidays, even in bad economic times like these, Parr said, “The Revels goes back to core values. When Father Christmas sings ‘May there be a pig in your poke, a pudding in your pot’ in the Mummers’ Song, it’s about bounty, awareness and appreciation of the bounty of the world around us—not shopping!”
7:30 p.m. Fridays and at 1 and 5 p.m. Saturday and Sundays through Dec.21 at Scottish Rite Theater, 1547 Lakeshore Dr., Oakland. $15-50.