Every year the Washington Revels appear to out-do themselves in producing their annual winter solstice Christmas Revels program. They travel further throughout the world and history, bringing back more exotic songs, dance, and stories from traditions near and far. This year, they celebrated their 30th anniversary in Washington, D.C., by returning to the heart of England, and to a production they performed in their 2nd year: Haddon Hall.
The story for this show is set in the 1920’s as Sir John Henry Montague Manners, 9th Duke of Rutland (Morgan Duncan), comes to Haddon Hall, his family home, prior to selling it to make way for a new motor way. He brings his wife (Katrina Va Duyn) and their two children (Mattias Lundberg and Kira Cohen) to view the grand hall one more time before letting the construction crews tear it down. Being the night before the winter solstice, the magic of the season brings together the prior nobility who have lived in Haddon Hall, along with their families, servants, and the local people who have tended to the manor house for the past 200 years, since his family left.
To Sir John, these apparitions are just haunting memories from the portraits hung about the main hall. To the generations past, he is an owner who has forgotten what he possesses. Over the next couple of hours Sir John’s family and eventually he, rediscovers the joy of upholding tradition. First his young daughter learns of the fun of singing with peers. Then his wife recalls her voice, long set aside from merriment. As each has a scene with the other girls and women in the chorus, they receive robes to adorn their 1920’s dresses. Sir John’s son, Charles, receives a vest after he step in for a missing morris dancer, thereby realizing that those stuffy morris dance lessons at school connect him with something more than folk dance. Only Sir John refuses to join in the reveling, for he is without jest. He has been ignoring the fool on stage with him.
The first magical character to have appeared in Haddon Hall at the beginning of the program was The Fool (Mark Jaster). To put Sir John in his place, this shortest day, he is made the Fool to the Lady of Misrule, selected from the audience. He is made to humble himself by lying on her robe at her feet, then to sit to the side while the singers bring on the Christmas feast. Still he has no joy. He does not understand the Lord of the Dance, as the performers and audience rise from the stage and their seats to dance into the lobby for intermission.
As the second act begins, we hear Sir John trying to start his car. But, we know who has disabled the distributor. He returns to the hall with his family. They bed down in front of the fire to await the morning. Sir John wakes at the strike of the clock to meet with the Ghost of Revels past. They perform a 10 minutes version of Ebenezer Scrooge’s Christmas eve encounters with spirits. This culminates with the image of his wife as a young woman stepping out from her portrait on the wall, to waltz with him. The Ghost dances with is wife, and guides her to take Sir John’s hand in exchange for his memory of their youth. After they reminisce on those days, she slips away telling him that he has left his family for his wealth. With recognition of this insightful warning, he gains his robe of nobility when he joyfully joins in song.
The Washington Revels has grown over the 30 years of performances. Their sets contain more complicated elements. Their costumes could be framed in the National Gallery. Their music gains more clarity. Their dancing steps more deftly. Yet, at their core is communal celebration. We in the audience join in singing. We are part of the stories and the jokes. Returning to Haddon Hall brings us back to many of the standard songs that we have heard in other productions and recordings.
But, for all the jesting and caroling the Washington Revels carry a serious message about community. We are connected, whether this be as families, neighbors, annual audience members, or a nation. If we forget to sing, dance, recite poetry, and be Lords and Ladies of Misrule, we loose our connection. During the intermission, when Greg Lewis coached us for singing in the second act, he reminded us that this past weekend’s tragic deaths of children, teachers, and young man is neither reasons for ignoring community pain nor being silenced by it. Rather, he quoted Leonard Bernstein saying that in tragic times we must sing louder. On this shortest day of the year, find your joy.