Instead of cutting loose in the collective tumult of a Twelve Days of Midwinter celebration, we jostle each other anonymously in lines at airports and shopping malls. Instead of pondering the mysteries of fertility and seasonal shifts, we obsessively (and helplessly) monitor the economy's convulsions. That is why we require the Christmas Revels, whose yearly ritual-collage, performed Thursday night and again tomorrow at Lisner Auditorium, revives elements of the holiday season that don't go on sale.
Although art-life convergences are the Revels' aim, the two realms collide in ways we wish they didn't. In some ways, this year's more subdued spectacle parallels the less conspicuous consumption predicted for this retail season. There are no special effects. There is no master narrative to explain the juxtaposition of a gamelan ensemble with a Swedish festival of lights. The material is confined to medieval and Renaissance material from the British Isles.
But many will delight in this year's simple patchwork of Christmas-card perfect scenes depicting the cross-cultural phenomenon of winter solstice. The Rock Creek Morris Women kick their heels high in an exuberant morris dance for good luck and fertile fields; the Solstice Singers perform a lovely, hushed wren-sacrifice song. The obligatory event featuring cute children, "There Was a Pig," links Christmas to the cycle of planting and harvest. The cast's abilities range from the Solstice Singers' shaky solos to the Philadelphia Wind Ensemble's perfectly professional magic.
A charming and thought-provoking overlap of traditions is a feature of this year's Revels. Eugene Carlson, in a friar's robes, led "Shalom Chaverim," the first of the evening's "rounds for peace." A bagpipe accompanied "Amazing Grace." A clever reconstruction of a mummers play enveloped all previous motifs of death, resurrection and fertility. Mark Jaster shines throughout as the Fool.
There is the usual intermission floor show, a line dance snaking its way to the bottom of Lisner Auditorium. First-timers attending the show tomorrow night, beware: If someone in a velvet frock grabs your hand and sings, "Dance, then, wherever you may be!," she means it.