‘Christmas Revels’ sets sail with Irish bent on a better life

Symbolizing the holiday season as indelibly as the welcoming fragrance of evergreen, “The Christmas Revels” returns to historic Sanders Theatre in Harvard Square from December 14 - 27. This year, the participatory theatrical solstice celebration that is filled with joyful music, dance, comedy and carols will focus on Irish immigration.

For its 42nd edition, “Revels” is set on board the RMS Carpathia. It’s December 1907 and a group of Irish émigrés have left their homeland in search of a better life in America. The voyagers carry in their hearts bittersweet pieces of the land they’ve left behind. A long trip is anticipated, and Christmas will be celebrated en route with jigs and reels, ballads, stories, rounds to sing, a brass ensemble, a Mummers play, plus a champion Irish band.

Leading the way are musician and singer David Coffin, along with soloists Mary Casey and Steven Barkhimer, The Rattling Brogues with world champion piper Paddy Keenan and fiddler Sheila Falls Keohane, a 40-member chorus, The Cambridge Symphonic Brass Ensemble, The Pinewoods Morris Men, and the O’Shea Chaplin Academy of Irish Dance.

In honor of this year’s Irish-themed production, “Revels” has released a companion holiday CD entitled “Strike The Harp.”
Paddy Swanson, the long-time artistic director of “Revels” who maintains Irish and American citizenships, is directing the production. We spoke about the show recently during a break in rehearsals.

BIR: “Revels” celebrates a different culture each year. This time around, you’ve not only chosen Ireland, but also given it an extraordinary twist by not setting the story in a village.

A. Although we’ve never done an out-and-out Irish show, we’ve done several Celtic shows where we’ve combined several of the Celtic cultures. What maybe is a little unusual [this year] is that we’ve been very specific with our time period, which we’re usually not. I thought it might be interesting to . . . place it on board the ship, which really is, I think, the emblem for this tremendous change that happens when people emigrate. The story is a very poignant one for the Irish because there were so many iterations of it, starting in the mid 1800s.

BIR: And the authenticity of the year?

A. We’ve chosen 1907, which was one of the actual voyages of the Carpathia from Liverpool to New York. And there were voyages which actually did span the Christmas period. So it happens in this case that history coincides with our story – and that’s all for the good.

BIR: Setting “Revels” on a ship has to provide some interesting challenges.

A. We’re constricted in some ways by staying in one place on the deck of the ship, so my thought was that we would break out of that convention imaginatively by having a shanachie on board to tell a story to the kids. And as we get into the story we kind of dissolve the context and take it underwater . . . One of the Yeats stories, quite well known, involves a mermaid taking Jack down to the bottom of the seas to see his curiosities. That allows us a lot of license. And of course, we’re never stuck for music once we get into the Irish culture.

BIR: No matter where “Revels” takes us each Christmas, there are special touchstones that are always very important to the audience.

A. You measure the success of it by the reaction of the audience. A key part of why [founder] Jack Langstaff’s formula is successful is that there are living traditions within this ephemeral piece of theater. Things that are done in a ritual way – going out into the lobby, for instance, dancing “Lord of the Dance,” or singing together at the end of the show with the Sussex Mummers Carol, or singing a round for peace, and the moment where we do the poem, The Shortest Day.

BIR: Holding traditions close to the heart is especially true during the holidays.

A. Yes. I think it’s interesting as you hear people talk about bringing up kids. … that there’s a very palpable advantage to having important things repeated, so there are parts of your life that are expected, not dramatic (perhaps), but they are there and you touch them. Like movies and pizza on a Sunday night (Laughing).

BIR: The participatory element of “Revels” is integral to the experience.

A. My theory is that as people get more isolated in more parts of their lives, where everything is customized to oneself -- you have your own music and your own music delivery system and your own computer and gadgets and so on. I think that creates a little bit of a longing for sociability.

BIR: You scored a bit of a coup this year in that prominent Dublin artist P. J. Lynch did the beautiful graphic for the show. I’m told there’s a local connection.

A. We had a kid in our chorus who just was very photogenic . . . We took some photographs (of him for Lynch’s reference). We thought it would be nice to pitch this from the point of view of the child. By telling the story in these terms we can experience vividly some of the emotions that must have been central to the emigrant’s experience. The anxiety – how are we gonna have any kind of a Christmas on a boat at sea? The voyage, in a sense, is finding out just how little you need to have a truly memorable Christmas. The boy’s holding a model of the boat, but we’re not sure whether it’s his Christmas present, or if he’s giving it to us. It’s a neat image.

BIR: Is there a moment in this year’s show that means a lot to you personally?

A. [Music Director] George Erlen’s “Hymn For A New Land, which is in the tradition of the big orchestral choral works. [In creating it], he took a text, “The stone which the builders refused is become the headstone of the corner,” emphasizing the place of the immigrant. I made the voyage [to New York] on the Queen Elizabeth many years ago as a 12-year-old kid and I remember actually seeing the Statue of Liberty as we came in, and I remember the reaction. It was very somber as people stood and looked. We weren’t immigrants, but I could imagine the enormous symbolic power of that moment – people had gambled their entire lives and every resource that they had . . . and here it was. I’m hoping we can reconstruct a moment on stage that captures some of that.

R. J. Donovan is publisher of OnStageBoston.com.
“The Christmas Revels,” December 14 - 27, Sanders Theater, 45 Quincy Street, Cambridge. Tickets: 617-496-2222 or revels.org.