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December 27, 2012

People in this country can't get enough of old world traditions at this time of year.

Events like The Bracebridge Dinner, a high-end yuletide feast based on Olde Englishe customs which takes place at the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite, and The Christmas Revels, a form of holiday pageant involving singing, dancing, storytelling, poetry and music steeped in similar Anglo-centric traditions, usually sell out. And audience members do things that they don't usually do at other times of the year, like -- dare I say it -- sing and dance in public.

There are a number of Revels troupes around the United States today such as New York, Oakland and Houston. But the version which takes place each year at Sanders Theatre on the Harvard campus in Cambridge, MA is the mother of all of them. It's where the Revels organization took root in 1971, when the pageant's founder, John Langstaff, began producing the event to capacity audiences.

Last night, I attended The Revels in Cambridge. People were wedged into the lovely old theatre's pew-style seats. A jolly atmosphere prevailed. Though pageants of this kind don't generally appeal to me all that much -- they tend to feel a tad canned, kitsch and earnest for my taste -- this one makes for a fun experience because it is so professionally produced.

This year's show has an Irish theme. It begins with the massive cast of some 60 adults and children all dressed in immigrant drag boarding a rusty old bark for America. At the center of the loose narrative of travel and hope for a better life is a cantankerous old Irish poet (Billy Meleady), who doesn't feel so cheerful about leaving his homeland for the United States.

One of the most tightly scripted, humorous and beautifully performed sections of the episodically structured show (which is basically a patchwork of dances, songs and skits aboard the "ark") is a wild tall tale taken from Fairy and Folktales of the Irish Peasantry published by William Butler Yeats. It's narrated by the poet and it concerns a fisherman who befriends a supernatural, fish-like character and travels with him to the bottom of the ocean where he finds and eventually sets free the trapped souls of drowned sailors. The story involves a fantastical folk dance by a group of actors in ruby-red lobster costumes.

On the whole, though, I relished the instrumental music aspects of the performance more than the songs, dances and skits. A warm musical prelude at the top of the show provided by The Cambridge Symphonic Brass ensemble is one highlight. Instrumental sets performed by The Rattling Brogues, a phenomenal Irish music group whose membership includes one of the best harpists I've ever had the pleasure of hearing, had me enraptured.

The crowd, many of whom come back to the Sanders Theatre for The Revels every year, appeared to relish the many moments of audience participation. These ranged from singing carols like "Deck the Halls" to getting up and joining an enormous, snaking conga line at intermission.

The whole thing made me happy, and also made me sigh: I wish that audiences would embrace the participatory spirit at other times of the year. Carols are a great way to bring us out of ourselves. Should start singing them in the Spring too?


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