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The Revels' Comfort & Joy

Monday, December 6, 2004; Page C04

Over the years, the Christmas Revels have celebrated the winter solstice legends of many of the world's people from the Roma to the English Victorians. But, wide-ranging as these celebrations have been, some things have never changed: The world has become dark and has been brought back to light by the deeds of innocents, usually a collaboration of children and fools. The dark has been enlivened by wonderful singing, dancing and clowning, and the audience has danced itself into the intermission break to the music of "The Lord of the Dance." These are the certainties that the largely family audiences look forward to each year.

This year's Revels, which opened at Lisner Auditorium on Friday for the first of two weekends of delightful fun, returns to their roots in an English medieval court. This is the venue in which the Revels' traditional morris dance, sword dance and Abbots Bromley horn dance, all carried out with good-humored energy by the Foggy Bottom Morris Men, fit most comfortably. Saint George's battle with the dragon (this year, a wicked, jaw-chomping head on a stick wielded by a man followed by a "tail" of three children) seemed to belong in this court, and the splendid chorus of children singing "There Was a Pig Went Out to Dig" fit right in.

Matthew Nielson, top, and Mark Jaster in the Christmas Revels. (Sheppard Ferguson)

The heart of this year's production is actor and mime Mark Jaster, who, as the fool, manages to be hapless and wise, inept and graceful, mute and magnificently eloquent all at the same time. The Royall Noyse Brass and the Renaissance band Piffaro give a professional touch to the musicmaking, and Greg Lewis urges and organizes the audience to join in the singing with his accustomed enthusiasm.

Most of the people onstage in these productions, however, are volunteers -- singers, dancers and children for whom the participation and collaboration themselves are the supreme pleasures -- and over the years the stage has become more crowded and harder to manage. Director Roberta Gasbarre does a fine job (and her hand in designing a throne that transforms itself into a gigantic and menacingly ghostly apparition is masterly), but there is a price to pay; this year it is in a lack of flow from one scene to the next, and a big gap in artistic timing between the professional and amateur actors on the stage.

There are four more performances next weekend for this show that should become part of every family's holiday festivities.

-- Joan Reinthaler

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