(Host) When it comes to holiday traditions, the Christmas Revels is fairly new. Celebrating the holiday and the Winter Solstice, Revels started in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the 1970s and quickly spread to cities around the country. Revels North of Hanover is one of the longest running Revels in the country. Each year well over a hundred Upper Valley residents come together to make it happen.
Susan Keese dropped in on a rehearsal this week and filed this report from Backstage.
(Keese) This year’s Christmas Revels in Hanover are set in Victorian England, in the giddy social disorder of the Industrial Revolution. The stage set is a cityscape circa 1895. There’s a turning mill wheel on one side. On the other is a popular theater.
(Lamplighter) “Past three o’clock on a cold and frosty morning….”
(Keese) A lamplighter announces the night’s end. In the darkness, peddlers arrive, hawking their wares. “Mackerel! Fresh mackerel!” They move through the theater, drawing the audience in. “Old rags, any old rags? Fresh eggs for your Christmas breakfast!”
If the revelers have their way the audience will be on their feet singing and dancing before the celebration ends. (Sound of chorus singing, “God Rest ye Merry, Gentlemen.”)
(David Gay) “It’s sort of like a pageant. Usually each year we focus on a particular culture or a particular historical time. And it’s a collection of songs and dances, bits and pieces of drama poetry, traditional rituals from around the world. It’s material that reaches way back into the human history.”
(Keese) David Gay has been the Revels’ artistic director for ten years.
(Gay) “You get a chorus of local people, you bring in guest artists from outside. There is a huge creative crew of choreographers, dancers, the costumers, the set builders and designers – all of these people who work pretty much for the love of Revels because they don’t make very much money doing this at all.”
(Keese) As the light dawns on stage, and the workers begin their day, the night is just ending for some. The theater and dance hall denizens mingle with well-dressed swells’ out on the town.
(Master of Ceremonies) “Ladies and gentleman, friends! I would like for you to join me in welcoming back that lovely lady of the theater – Vesta Victoria.”
(Keese) Boston Actress Sarah DeLima is one of this year’s guest artists.
(DeLima) “I play somebody called Vesta Victoria, who was in fact a star of the Victorian music hall. And of course in those days theater was not quite nice, so she’s a slightly over the top, well known figure. And so they’ve taken her as a character and threaded her through the evening.”
(DeLima, singing) “Come, come, come and make eyes at me down at the old bull and bush…”
(Keese) There are also children on stage – ragged urchins who sleep in the gutters. Thirteen-year old Libby Chamberlain of Norwich plays one of them. In one of her favorite scenes, the children beg for food. They sing a song that’s almost a chant.
(Children’s chanting) “A soul, a soul, a soul, a cake! Please good missus a soul, a cake…”
(Chamberlain) “It’s so haunting and it’s just changing the show completely from these happy laughing people to the other side of the industrial revolution. Just the fact that we don’t have shoes and we climb up chimneys for a living.”
(Keese) As in any self-respecting holiday tale, something wonderful happens. Vesta Victoria persuades her well-heeled escort to throw a Christmas party in the theater. Every one, rich and poor is invited.
In act two, a table is piled high with food and there’s plenty of merriment and entertainment. There are Morris dancers, a steamy tango, a play within the play, and more singing. Even among the poor, there’s a sense that light has triumphed over darkness and that better times are coming.
The audience feels it too. Director David Gay:
(Gay) “So the focus of the show is really around how the return of the light is inevitable and how it takes a community to become in tune with the world around us in such a way that human beings are part of this process of the cycle of seasons.”
(Keese) For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese, Backstage in Hanover New Hampshire.
(Host) The Christmas Revels will be performed Friday Saturday and Sunday at the Hopkins Center in Hanover.