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Revels celebrates a French-Canadian Christmas

L’Amérique, c’est tout, George W. Bush would say (if he knew how), but Revels has a better idea. For the past 33 years, it’s brought to Boston Christmases from around the world, reminding us that the faith our president professes is celebrated in many languages and cultures other than our own and doing so in a way that, unlike the Radio City Christmas Spectacular’s "Living Nativity," doesn’t trash other religions. This year’s Christmas Revels goes north to French Canada for a reverent, respectful celebration of Québec that’s everything the Radio City Christmas Spectacular isn’t.

It’s also the most cogent Christmas Revels in my memory, which takes in most of the previous 33. Narrator Debra Wise, of the Underground Railway Theater, introduces us to our Québec "home town," which is founded at the place where three rivers meet and after some thought comes up with just the right name: Trois Rivières. The model in front of Wise is dominated by a huge white church with an even huger steeple, but the focus of the town’s holiday festivities is the town hall, where the usual Revels suspects — here dubbed Le Chœur du Noël, Les Sabots Volants, and the Québecois Kids — along with guests Danse Cadence and the ever-present Pinewoods Morris Men and Cambridge Symphonic Brass Ensemble serve up the usual song ("Auprès de ma blonde," "Vive la compagnie") and dance (a quadrille and a lot of hard-shoe clogging) and carols ("Jesous ahatonia," originally written in Huron, and the Jean Mouton motet Quæramus cum pastoribus) and children’s games (I remember "Il était une bergère" from my childhood) with the usual professionalism and enchanting enthusiasm.

But this Revels also creates an affecting through-line out of Québec’s voyageur tradition, whereby men would leave their families and go out into the wilderness to make their fortunes trapping and logging. Already, Gaston, moved to give "the Devil his due" as a dancer, has prompted an appearance by the Man in Black (Judy Erickson), and when, after a tearful farewell ("À la claire fontaine"), he and four other men from Trois Rivières find themselves hundreds of miles from the bright lights of New Year’s Eve at home, and Gaston says he’d sell his soul to the Devil to get back, the Devil returns to offer his "Chasse-Galerie" ("flying canoe") on three conditions: no swearing, no wine, and back by midnight. A hilariously low-tech projection of the flying canoe against the back wall is followed by a quick pit stop on stage so Gaston can relieve himself and then another ingenious inspiration, a tiny model of the canoe moving above the audience and past the Sanders Theatre chandelier.

Arriving in Trois Rivières, the men are fêted with Revels’ traditional mummers’ play. In this Patrick Swanson original, "Little Jack and the Werewolf," it’s Royal Canadian Mountie "Grande Tête" (Don Duncan) playing St. George to the Dragon of Loup Garou (Martin Tulloch); the werewolf wins their joust, but then ’Ti-Jean (David Torrey) steps up the plate and with his broom skies the first pitch from Père Noël (Walter Locke) up, up, up and then down square onto the noggin of Loup Garou. Victoire, complete with Red Sox World Series pennant. Except that, we now learn, Loup Garou is Père Noël’s son, so the Doctor (Debra Wise), in plumed Napoleonic hat and tricouleur sash and lace cuffs, to the strains of the 1812 Overture, mixes up a potion (not excluding the juice of a mosquito’s spleen) and then drinks the werewolf’s blood. That restores Loup Garou; the off-stage howl suggests the Doctor has becomes a werewolf, but Trois Rivières has more immediate problems to attend to, since it’s midnight and Gaston and his mates are of course forsworn. The Priest (Jonathan Meath) challenges the Devil to a dance-off, claiming any Québecois man or woman can out-jig him; the Devil, as if all his brains were in his feet, chooses Pierre (Danse Cadence leader Pierre Chartrand) and is duly defeated, whereupon Wise, back in her narrator’s outfit, recites Susan Cooper’s "The Shortest Day" and the troupe closes, as always, with the Sussex Mummers’ Carol.

The set, with its brooms and barrels and joint stools flanking a folk-painted cupboard, is homy and unassuming, and so are the costumes, with the ladies largely in mob caps and pinafores and the men wearing fur, wool, plaid, flannel, suspenders, and lots of stocking caps. As our hosts, David Coffin (who also sings, plays the recorder, and tutors the audience in the sing-along sections) and Debra Wise are savvy and funny, and Danse Cadence clog up a storm. Even the brooms get put to good use, as the performers do their own stage business. Nothing canned or commercial here, just Christmas the way it was meant to be.

Issue Date: December 17 - 23, 2004
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