Reveling in the Winter Solstice

The Thinker by Rodin

Somehow, I managed to live in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area for 29 years without learning of The Washington Revels. The Washington Revels is one of nine similar revels organizations across the United States. In some ways, these organizations resemble Renaissance Festivals. Both do their part to reunite us with our past. They help us reconnect with an increasingly distant time when we lived in smaller communities and felt deeply connected to the earth and each other through myth, ceremony, song and dance.

The Washington Revels main events are an annual series of holiday shows staged at Lisner Auditorium in Washington D.C. Each show is different from the previous year’s show but they all have a common theme: celebrating the holiday season and the solstice the way distant generations of ours celebrated it. Each show strives to be not so much theater as an embracing communal experience. The audience is not entirely a passive. You may find yourself dancing in the aisles with the group.

This year’s show was oriented around Elizabethan England. It was staged to take place in the town of Norwich. The town is a destination for Will Kemp, one of William Shakespeare’s comedic actors who as a stunt over nine days danced from London to Norwich. To celebrate his success, Queen Elizabeth deigns to pay the village a special visit. This show was loosely organized into two acts but was rife with song (over fifty were squeezed in) and dance. Each song and dance is authentic, and most are authentic to the Elizabethan period.

The town of Norwich was depicted as a very busy but very musical place where every townie is something of a character. The stage of Lisner Auditorium was literally overflowing with cast, some of whom were perched on the steps leading up to the stage. It is doubtful that there was a paid actor in the whole troupe. While the dancing of the children sometimes left a bit to be desired (they are children after all), all were overflowing with holiday merriment and utter sincerity. Even Scrooge would have had a hard time leaving a Washington Revel performance without a skip to his step.

The show at times felt inspired by Norman Rockwell. There were a few understated saucy musical numbers, but overall wholesomeness, good cheer and mild buffoonery were the order of the day. This is the way it must be. Revels organizations do not exist to entertain so much as they exist to wake us out of our cynical 21st century slumber. If you have a teenager whose idea of fun is playing Nintendo games, you need to haul them to a performance. Given the chance, our common humanity can be much more engaging and delightful than electronic games. Attending a Revels performance is a bit like those clapping and singing games you enjoyed with your elementary school classmates. If you remember the elemental fun you felt back then, you should feel the same way by the end of a Revels show.

In this show, as in all the Revels shows, audience participation is par for the course. Expect to sing along in a few traditional holiday carols. If you feel so moved dance in the aisles when the show moves off the stage. Also, expect to be entertained, delighted and charmed. Few such amateur groups come so close to having their performances feel so professional. The Revels may be working solely for good cheer, but their hearts and minds are fully engaged in spreading merriment. You should feel the contagion.

I imagine that Renaissance England was not quite the merry place depicted here. For one thing, they had the Spanish Armada to worry about. Of course, this solstice celebration is idealized. Likely life in Elizabethan England was a lot less fun: dirtier, smellier, harsher, sicker and bawdier. Perhaps they made up for their chancier lives with more careless revelry and festive celebrations tied along seasonal events.

I am grateful to the Revels for pulling me out of my own holiday stupor. Before the program, I was making lists in my head of Christmas presents I needed to buy. By the end of the show, I felt a little like Charlie Brown discovering the true meaning of Christmas. I knew all along what the seasons was supposed to be. Thanks to the Revels, I felt it this year. So if you do not feel any holiday spirit this year, or even if you do, reserve your tickets now for one of next year’s performances. The Washington Revels are the perfect antidote to the bizarre Madison Avenue concoction we now call the Holiday Season. I just wish I had had a cup of eggnog to lift at the end of the show.