If you happen to meet with any ghosts during the holiday season, it’s probably good to know that they prefer the term “spirits.” That’s just one of the practical things I learned at The Spirits of Haddon Hall, the 2013 Santa Barbara Revels’ celebration of the winter solstice. The perfect place to spend the year’s shortest afternoon turned out to be in one of the remodeled Lobero’s comfortable new seats, enjoying this invigorating theatrical blend of ritual, song, dance, tradition, and community. The premise of this year’s Yule-themed adventure was based on a seemingly abandoned ancestral home, Haddon Hall, in Bakewell, Derbyshire, and its owner, the 9th Duke of Rutland. As in the real-life history of Haddon Hall, the 9th Duke faces a difficult decision, circa 1926. Should he allow the home to be razed to make way for a highway project, or should he save it for future generations? Presumably unlike the historical 9th Duke, the one in Revels, played to the hilt by Bill Egan, gets some supernatural advice from a group of interested spirits representing the many generations who have celebrated the holidays there. Led by Matt Tavianini as Motley the Fool, this lively crew of singers, bell ringers, swordsmen, and Morris dancers succeeds in influencing first the Duchess (Jennifer Vogel); then the Duke’s children, played by Ginger Rose Brucker and Brandon Tyler Holland; and finally the reluctant Duke himself to acknowledge the value of retaining the old house, complete with its holiday spirits.
Although their multi-century vision of the holidays is an inclusive one, the Revels’ approach to the Christmas spirit offers nothing like the bland commercial mainstream. If a guy in a van Dyck beard, puffy velvet pantaloons, and tights patrolling the aisles hissing “Sing!” still would not get you to croon along with “Joy to the World,” well then, Revels may not be for you. But not even the most confirmed Scrooge among us could possibly resist the children, who sing beautifully, dance and play holiday games together, and even, when the spirit calls for it, swim across the stage in imitation of fish. The music in this Revels performance was particularly vibrant and interesting, thanks not only to the wonderful singers and soloist Diane Stevenett but also to the Peak District Players and the Bakewell Brass Ensemble, who played a wide-ranging erudition of the musical selections, which included everything from baroque opera fanfares to folk songs collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams.
The heart of any Revels production is the traditional St. George and the Dragon Mummer’s play, which combines pantomime-style depictions of St. George and the quack doctor who comes to raise him from the dead with a ritual sword dance. This year it was further augmented by The Santa Barbara Independent’s own Robby Robbins as the Dragon in a wonderful backpack costume. The clever way in which the Duke substituted for a reluctant spirit wove the material tightly into the storyline, and the result was one of the best and most memorable versions of this delightful play within a play yet. Congratulations to Susan Keller, Ken Ryals, director Maggie Mixsell, and set designer Pat Frank for taking 2013’s Revels to another level.