Winter Revels

When the stage is dark and everyone waits; that is my favorite moment of a theatrical show. Rarely does a production live up to my hopes for it in that hushed anticipation. 

Anything is possible before the beginning.

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In the dark of the theater this past Friday night there are towering aspens backlit by an undulating field of soft "Northern" lights. The stage has the blue cast of moonlight and all cell phones have been set to vibrate. We wait for something to happen.

From the dark of the wings sounds a collection of human voices imitating the shrill calls of hungry animals. Their cries die down into a haunting harmonization that is then shattered by similar calls all around the theater. Behind and above me the answering calls settle down into a chilling harmony of tones and Portland's Christmas Revels begin.

If you're unfamiliar with the Revels let me share the briefest of explanations. Each year in cities around the US a group of musicians, dancers, and actors put on a stage show featuring a mash-up of Christian and pagan holiday customs from some European culture. The show is quite a production, with elaborate costumes and complex musical arrangements supporting a tenuous plot based upon winter solstice fears and the redemptive power of children and audience participation. Anachronisms abound, Morris dancing is a must, and there's always at least one person on stage whose smile seems cemented in a Botox-induced mockery of joy. Nevertheless, the music rarely disappoints and there are always some fascinating staging tricks employing different percussive sounds and lighting. 

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This year the theme for the Revels was based around "A Visit to the Scandinavian Northlands." Much of the story was an amalgam of gnome lore and an epic poem of Finnish folklore penned in the 1800's entitled The Kalevala. It contained a very amusing mummer's play (an English/Irish tradition) and the audience favorite Lord of the Dance (lyrics written in 1963 to the tune of the Shaker song Simple Gifts) despite the fact that neither of these things have an origin in Scandinavia. Thankfully, the show contained a number of very quiet moments, such as the mysterious Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, which featured a dark procession of archetypal characters and the subdued rutting of antlered men. St. Lucia's procession was also depicted well although some of the magic is naturally lost when electronic candles are used for her crown.

Apart from the bracing opening the finest thing about the Revels this year was the music of the Karelian Folk Music Ensemble. This acoustic trio originates from an area that straddles the Finnish and Russian border. Every song they performed, be it for dancing or for crying, stirred up a deep resonance in me. These three men were the authentic heart of a show attempting to present a sense of yule in inhospitable Northern climes; they had no real need for artifice or costuming because they were of the place they presented. Without them I might have left entertained, but not moved. 

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Upon returning home a rare snow began to fall accompanied by a bitter wind. I couldn't help but think that a few bars of music must have escaped the theater to call the winter out.

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