Boston Globe HOLIDAY ARTS PREVIEW: A medieval ‘Midwinter Revels’ will suffer these fools gladly
By Terry Byrne, Globe correspondent. Updated November 10, 2023, 10:00 a.m.
Across 34 years as artistic director of the Revels, Patrick Swanson has taken audiences from every corner of Europe to North America, from medieval times to the 20th century, in an exploration of the mysteries of life, death, and rebirth that are celebrated around the winter solstice.
“If we dig deep enough, we find an aquifer that connects all cultures,” Swanson says.
In “Midwinter Revels: The Feast of Fools,” which runs Dec. 15-28 at Sanders Theatre in Cambridge, roles are reversed, chaos ensues, and a brave hero must descend into the Underworld to restore order.
“We’ve been playing with genres over the last few years,” Swanson says, “but this year we are returning to our roots, with brass instruments with their big sound, big carols, and processions.”
This year’s 53rd annual production marks a personal milestone for Swanson: At its conclusion, he will retire as the Revels’ artistic director. Debra Wise, a cofounder and former artistic director of Underground Railway Theater who was named in the spring as the Revels’ associate artistic director, will take over while a search goes on for Swanson’s permanent successor. That change at the top will follow closely behind the Revels’ appointment of Elijah Botkin as music director in 2022.
“Elijah has a deep expertise in choral music, which means our community chorus is upping their game,” Swanson says. “He also has a love of medieval music, which aligns with this year’s theme.”
Before writing “The Feast of Fools” script, Swanson consulted with Wise, Botkin, the staff, and other Revels organizations around the country (there are nine currently) to decide the production’s theme and what elements to include.
“This is a community event,” he says, with local singers — adults and children who auditioned — complementing the professional cast, “and so, over the years, people make suggestions, based on visits to Europe or wherever or family traditions they want to share, and we try to incorporate that music or those traditions when we can.”
Swanson has tapped choreographer Susan Dibble, circus clown René Collins, jester Roger Reed, and folk dancer and musician Laurel Swift to create a rich combination of music, dance, and theater that is the Revels’ trademark.
David Coffin, master of ceremonies since 1990, returns again this year.
“The Feast of Fools” is set in the land of myth, and although it references the Greek story of Persephone descending into the Underworld, in medieval times the story focused on a king who loses his crown to three fools when the order of things is overturned. The fools will appoint a “Lord of Misrule” from the audience who can have some fun before Death takes advantage of the confusion to steal the light of the world. The rightful king is then forced to go into the Underworld, pass by Death, and emerge with light on the other side.
Swanson says that among the elements he’s incorporated into the show are the tradition of the Yule log, a Mummers’ play with dragons, Georgian choral music, and a gorgeous Palestrina (music from the late Renaissance).
“The question of what comes after the darkness of the shortest day cuts across every culture,” Swanson says, “so we have lots to play with.”
MIDWINTER REVELS: The Feast of Fools
Presented by Revels, Inc. At Sanders Theatre, 45 Quincy St., Cambridge. Dec. 15-28. $20-$105. Virtual encore performance, Dec. 25-Jan. 7. $40.50 per household. 617-496-2222, revels.org/midwinter