REVIEW: 'The Christmas Revels' points north

12.18.2018

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The Finnish epic compilation the “Kalevala” is featured throughout “A Nordic Celebration of the Winter Solstice.”

By Jeffrey Gantz GLOBE CORRESPONDENT  
DECEMBER 17, 2018

CAMBRIDGE — “The Christmas Revels” has headed to the frozen north for the first time since 1993. This 48th annual production, “A Nordic Celebration of the Winter Solstice,” might not make it as far as the North Pole and Santa, but it does revel in the rich traditions of Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland. The Cambridge Symphonic Brass Ensemble opens the show at Sanders Theatre with music director Megan Henderson’s “Fantasia on Finlandia.” The Finnish epic compilation the “Kalevala” is featured throughout. And the traditional mummers’ play is a hilarious take on a famous tragedy set in Denmark. (Hint: Think Shakespeare.)

Even the running narrative for this Nordic “Revels” picks up, very loosely, on the plot of “Hamlet.” Swedish ambassador Gustav (Matt Winberg) and his wife, Greta (Noni Lewis), are hosting a Christmas Eve party for the new Finnish ambassador, but their dreamer son, Sven (Ewan Swanson), misses his late uncle Väinö and isn’t living up to his father’s expectations. His only consolation is the friendship of head maid Anna (Sarah Morrisette) — but then his mother gives him Väinö’s copy of the “Kalevala,” and he reads, in the first of its 50 runos, how the world was formed from a teal’s eggs, and how daughter of the air Ilmatar gave virgin birth to the hero Väinämöinen. Susan Cooper’s adaptation of two different English translations preserves the trochaic tetrameter rhythm of the original (a rhythm Longfellow borrowed for “The Song of Hiawatha”); Ilmatar herself is a giant puppet looming over the stage. It’s all wonderfully bigger than life.

Shortly thereafter, Väinämöinen (Christopher Kandra), for whom Väinö was named, appears to Sven, much as the Ghost appears to Hamlet. Väinämöinen takes Sven into the world of the “Kalevala”; they find themselves in runo 47, where Louhi (Morrisette), mistress of the north, hides the sun and the moon and plunges the world into darkness. To bring back the light, Väinämöinen and “Sven the Younger,” as he dubs himself, will have to visit Louhi’s Iron Mountain (to the accompaniment of “In the Hall of the Mountain King” from Grieg’s “Peer Gynt” score) and overcome, among other obstacles, mead-swilling serpents.

Back in Gustav and Greta’s drawing room, meanwhile, the Christmas Eve party is in full swing. Jeremy Barnett’s muted but effective set in blue and cream surrounds a few simple slate gray wooden benches with lit Christmas trees. It makes ample space for the colorfully clad guests — which is just as well, since Gustav and Greta have invited dignitaries from all over. We’re introduced to Nordic musical instruments: Finland’s kantele, Sweden’s nyckelharpa, Norway’s hardingfele. There’s a full measure of singing — carols, ballads, lullabies, bell songs, herding calls — from Merja Soria (Finnish), Sunniva Brynnel (Swedish and Norwegian), the Kalevala Chorus, and the Solstånd Children. The telespringar, the slängpolska, the polonäs, and the reinlender are presented by the Northern Lights Dancers. The tomten, or good house trolls, pay a tippy-toe Christmas Eve visit.

And that mummers’ play? It’s a very condensed “Hamlet,” with Swanson as the title hero, Winberg as a Bronx-accented Uncle Claudius, Lewis as a Welsh-accented mother Gertrude, and Morrisette as a kohl-eyed Ophelia, plus Alexander Hall as the dragon and Sam Colton as a big bad troll. Hamlet’s poisoned chalice leaves the players dead at the end, but as Room (Kandra) goes to search for a doctor, the tomten reappear and resurrect everyone.

The traditional Revels favorites are all here: “Lord of the Dance,” the “Abbots Bromley Horn Dance” (especially well integrated into the narrative), the Pinewoods Morris Men, Cooper’s poem “The Shortest Day,” and “The Sussex Mummers’ Carol.” And Sven, returning as a hero from his “Kalevala” adventure, finally impresses his father. Even by Revels’ usual high standards, this is an outstanding Christmas edition. Revels shouldn’t wait another 25 years to go back north.

Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at jeffreymgantz@gmail.com.

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