CULTURE

Published on December 12th, 2014 | by Katy Evans

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The Puget Sound Revels romp through the Italian Renaissance

Dropping in on a Revels rehearsal is a lot like coming home for me. I grew up a choir and theater geek and it just takes a few choral warm ups to get me all ready to jump back into the fray.

Perhaps you are like me and two years ago you went to a Revels performance on a whim – you were craving some kind of holiday-tinged live performance, and tickets were miraculously available. You went, you were delighted and amused, and you realized you had stepped into a very specific subculture.

Revels_189Then, like me, you may have then wondered “what’s the deal with Revels?” The initial answer to my query was found on the Puget Sound Revels’ website: “Puget Sound Revels revives the ancient connection between the community and the arts, celebration and the seasons. We’re here to foment communal effervescence!” it enthuses. Though that may describe both the inspiration and action of Revels, I needed some slightly more precise information.

The origin of American Revels

Inspired by the English theatrical presentation style of the 16th century and earlier, Revels, in their contemporary iteration, are borne of mid-century America. Created by singer John Flagstaff, the revived Revels began in 1957 as a Christmas stage performance. He established Revels Inc. in 1957, and the practice has continued to grow in popularity around the world.

Revels are seasonal celebrations of the songs, dances, and stories of specific eras and cultures. Although first inspired by English traditions, Revels productions have gone on to educate and entertain audiences by highlighting cultures from around the world. The Puget Sound Revels Christmas production is no different: this year the theme is the winter traditions of 15th century Italy.

Our local Revels

The Puget Sound Revels was founded in 1993 and has produced multiple shows each year ever since. The Christmas Revels is a serious highlight: this year, they will perform the show six times and expect most performances to sell out.

Revels_173These local revellers are a passionate and committed bunch. Many have been with the Revels for decades, many are professional actors and musicians, many see it as a family affair with multiple generations represented. But even with years of experience accumulated on stage, a Revels performance is not a pretentious event – it is inclusive, happy, welcoming; it’s, you know, a revel.

The credit for this effort, specifically for the upcoming Christmas Revels, extends across the entire 63-person cast and 27-person production team, and it’s clear that dedication defines the Revels’ cohesion.

I talked with Mary Lynn, Puget Sound Revels’ founder to learn more about the leadership that makes this show go. Director BJ Douglas has worked with Puget Sound Revels since 1994. Says Mary of BJ, “she’s an extraordinary director with the ability to work with a large cast made up of amateurs and professionals, adults and children, actors and instrumentalists – it’s kind of a mad house and she tracks it all well.”

Music director and music and choral teacher with Tacoma Public Schools, Megan Oberfield began as a singer with Revels and took over music direction in 2004. Trained at the Westminster Choir College with a Master’s in Music Education from Silver Lake College,  Megan is, as Mary puts it, “an impressive musician.” I have to agree; in rehearsals Megan was good-natured and straightforward with the children and adult singers – and I think she may have perfect pitch.

I also had a chance to meet Alex Lewington, the tireless costume designer for the show and creator of its 93 separate costumes. An artist committed to detail, Alex designed all the costumes to reflect the Italian fashion of 1490. Not 1489 or 1491, 1490. This kind of exactitude reflects the unshakable foundation of the production behind Puget Sound Revels, giving the performers, many of whom are more enthusiasts than expert, a professional experience.

Revels_119As Mary put it, “As a rule of thumb for Revels, we place the amateur chorus in a nest of professionals – actors, instrumentalists, sometimes dancers – and they are all supported by a professional artistic and production team: stage director, music director, set designer, lighting designer, costume designer, stage manager, set builder.”  This professional “nest” has a way of bringing out the best, as was clear when I visited rehearsals.

Preparing the time machine

“I shoot a hippopotamus with bullets made of platinum, because if I use leaden ones, his hide is sure to flatten ’em!”

The vocal warm-ups rang through the First United Methodist Church basement, setting the scene for an evening of cheerful practice.

Revels_186It was clear from the rehearsal’s beginning that the Revels are a little different than a typical community theater or choir experience. In the blending of the two, a kind of resilience emerges: an expectation of personal discipline, patience, and focus that (at least in my experience) tends to lack in other creative community forms of expression that rely on a sole vision of one conductor or director barking orders.

Revels_160I could see, even in rehearsal, the “fomenting of communal effervescence” – the Revels players do commune: they play off each other, emphasize eye contact and collaboration. The performers clearly and actively learn from each other as they worked through the repertoire. And its not just the adults – this spirit extends to the child performers, the musicians, and the production team. The rehearsals I attended were disciplined but fun with regular affirmation when songs and choreography landed just right.

This year’s Christmas Revels

Like years past, the Christmas Revels in the Italian Renaissance is a heartwarming, festive affair filled with great music, waggish Commedia dell’arte, and just a touch of solemnity and awe. There is a lot to admire and appreciate about the Puget Sound Revels, but when it comes down to it, you have to see the actual show to know the true Revels experience.

Although the “communal effervescence” is initiated in rehearsals, it isn’t until the musicians, actors, and singers face a packed Rialto Theater that the true fomentation is realized. The performers crave an audience, the show is as much about it’s supporters as it is about the songs, dances, and pantomime of which it is comprised. Revels’ is about the fans. At the Revels everyone, including the audience, sings and dances; everyone makes merry, everyone taps into the revelry.

There is a ton of talent featured at the Revels: the delightful troupe Teatro Magnifico di Firenze which includes actors Tony Curry, Shirley Shultz, Mark Rabe, Matt Overfield, and Jon Lutyens; the excellent Seattle Brass Ensemble who work with the Revels every year; the fascinating Apprendisti Musicali of the Seattle Historical Arts for Kids led by violinist Shulamite Kleinerman; the frankly adorable childrens choir; and the devoted adult choir. But you have to be ready for earnest, enthusiastic Christmas nerdery. And I of course, as a fellow nerd, mean this as a deeply positive description as well as an advisory.

Revels_197The Revels are an ebullient, educational deep dive into the history of solstice observation around the world. You have to be in to this stuff, or at least a little bit curious to enjoy it and there is no room for cynicism. Here’s my advice: go for it. Get into it. Revel a little this Christmas with the best revellers around.

Puget Sound Revels presents The Christmas Revels
A celebration of the Winter Solstice with traditional dance, processionals, carols, and commedia dell’arte set in the Italian Renaissance

December 13, 2 pm and 7:30 pm
December 14, 1 pm & 5:30 pm
December 16, 7:30 pm
December 17, 7:30 pm
Rialto Theater, 310 South 9th Street, Tacoma, WA 98402

Tickets can be purchased here: broadwaycenter.org/events/puget-sound-revels

All photographs feature the current cast and production team for the Puget Sound Revels and were taken by co-creative director Kali Raisl.

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About the Author

Founder and Co-Managing Editor at Post Defiance, Katy writes and fundraises for Tacoma. Follow her @katynicoud.



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