All holiday shows draw to some extent on traditions that stretch back further than the stage and extend outward into the audience. Santa Barbara Revels, an enterprising group of singers, actors, dancers, and musicians, having taken their cue from organizations elsewhere in the country, particularly the one founded in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1971 by John Langstaff, have put together an entertainment that is equal parts carol sing, medieval festival, and renaissance fair. With David Brainard and Susan Keller performing the ceremonial roles of Lord and Lady, and Ken Ryals bringing great wit and energy to the part of the Fool, this Revels created just the kind of holiday spirit that bypasses the commercial and heads straight to the heart of the season. Embracing a cast of all ages, and under the sharp yet sensitive direction of the team of Nathan Kreitzer, Maggie Mixsell, and Pam McLendon, The Christmas Revels were educational, traditional, and simply fun.
The program opened with a ritual clearing of the space by the Fool, who carried an old broom and made his way not only down the aisles but through the rows of the theater, setting a precedent that was to be kept throughout the show of integrating the audience into the action. The Solstice Singers, the Coastal Brass Quintet, and the James Michael Consort collaborated beautifully on carols both familiar and exotic, and a team of energetic dancers executed a Morris dance that dates to the 15th century. At the midpoint of the first half, an audience member was selected to be the Lord of Misrule and seated onstage dressed in a robe and crown and holding a gold toilet plunger as a scepter. The Lord was allowed to keep the scepter.
With so many good singers both onstage and in the audience, the carols worked easily, even when they required the coordination of a round, such as on “Dona Nobis Pacem.” In the second half of the show, the numbers became incrementally more ambitious and theatrical. The climax came in the innovative sequence designed by Revels auteur John Langstaff and called “St. George and the Dragon.” Christy Flis was particularly good as the Doctor, and the crowd was suitably surprised when the Fool brought St. George back to life. Revels‘ producer Keller is to be congratulated for bringing this eminently civilized and energetically festive new tradition to Santa Barbara.