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Reveling in Spring

A Boston theatrical tradition goes Cajun. logo
Whenever a Revels performance takes place, something magical happens. The trademark Revels-blend of chorus, instruments, dance, movement, and story carries the audience backwards in time to seasonal rituals of revival and redemption, when people felt more intimately linked to the mysteries of the cosmic order. And soon the magic will rise again, at the Spring Revels 2000, billed as "a Cajun celebration of the vernal equinox," playing April 28 through April 30.

Using the Prince Edward Island-based band Barachois as its anchor, the 80-member cast will take the audience on the journey of Evangeline, the heroine of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's 1847 epic poem, and the Acadians, who were brutally dispersed by the British in 1755 and migrated to the then-Spanish colony of Louisiana where they became Cajuns. Barachois and the cast's storytelling will be helped along by actress Paula Plum, musician Tom Pixton, Revels favorite David Coffin, The Fiddles of Acadia, The Catfish Cajun Band, and The River Rat Children.

The Revels officially began in 1971, but they really began much earlier, when founder John Langstaff was growing up in a family in Brooklyn Heights, New York, that filled the air and his ear with music. At the age of seven he launched his own music career at a choir school in New York City, which eventually carried him to the Juilliard School and to Europe (where he developed a deep love of traditional music), and then into the classroom and recording studio. A few forays into Revels-type shows in 1957 and 1966, together with the prompting of his daughter Carol, spurred Langstaff to present The Christmas Revels in 1971 at Harvard University's Sanders Theatre, where it has remained a tradition ever since.

Since that time, the Revels has been designated as a non-profit organization, and has spun off other Revels productions in New York City; Washington, D.C.; Hanover, New Hampshire; the California area; Media, Pennsylvania; Houston, Texas; Tacoma, Washington; Portland, Oregon; and Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota. The Revels come in a variety of spices--the Christmas Revels celebrates the winter solstice, the Sea Revels tells about the lives of those who make their living on the sea, and the Spring Revels honors the vernal equinox--all of them combining ancient dances, music, stories, varied locations and cultures, and most importantly, audience participation.

Patrick Swanson is the helmsman for the upcoming Revel, and he brings excellent credentials to the job. Born in Manchester, England, as a member of the "risen working class," he attended Strawberry Hill, a teachers' college that was part of the University of London. There he encountered Roger Lane, who was holding a very unusual theater class that combined the "jocks" of the university with drama students (who, according to Swanson, "Believed that theater meant Gilbert and Sullivan.") Lane worked on what Swanson calls the "primitive" level, focusing on folk events that also had core elements of theater.

A defining moment for Swanson came when he saw a film of the Padstow 'Obby 'Oss May Day celebration. (Padstow is a small village in Cornwall.) Its anarchic, un-English energy galvanized him. Swanson went on with his teacher training, but eventually linked up with Ellen Stewart's La MaMa theater company, which was making a sweep through London in 1969. He came back to New York with La MaMa, where he apprenticed for a couple of years and did avant-garde theater "with some very strange people." Bouncing back to England, he taught acting and improvisation at the London Academy of Dramatic Art, and founded a London-based La MaMa group. He then returned to the United States, where he took over the reins of the Castle Hill Festival in Ipswich, Massachusetts, presenting works by Peter Sellars and Julie Taymor, among others.

In 1977, Swanson met John Langstaff, and all of his training and experiences seemed to find a home in the multiple-arts/communal approach of the Revels. Later, he became Langstaff's "dauphin," eventually taking over the directing duties upon Langstaff's retirement.
Swanson sees the power of the Revels in how it "filters" reality down to some very essential points of human life: we live, we die, and in-between we celebrate the seasons of our lives as they turn. The Revels performances root themselves, in part, in the medieval "Feast of Fools"--guild-inspired events that were used to re-state and reinforce the common truths of those times. To make them work in a mostly illiterate society, the presentations had to both be direct and uplifting, crude and inspiring, which meant that all unnecessary ornamentation had to be stripped away so that people could ponder the "imponderables" (to use Samuel Beckett's phrase).

In addition to the standard Revels elements of traditional music and seasonal celebrations, other elements are added. Swanson explains how a Revels production often begins with a simple collection of songs that together suggest a through-line or narrative. Once that's defined, they will search out a "guide" with credentials (such as a band like Barachois) who create a nucleus for the Revels "village"--the 80 or so cast members who will form the spine of the performance. Throughout the building of the show, the creators always select those elements that will give the audience a deeper appreciation for the particular locale or cultural theme that they have chosen.

Longfellow's Evangeline offers just such a robust thread upon which to string a Revels performance. "The poem," Swanson explains, "despite all its melodramatic elements, shows a woman who has grit, fidelity, courage, who never gives up." It is a story with heroic cross-cultural resonance, and suffused with the redemptive energies of the vernal equinox, the rising of a new year, and new possibilities.

Barachois became the musical pivot for the production thanks to George Emlen, the Revels musical director. Emlen lives in Maine and routinely spends time on Prince Edward Island, where he met Barachois (living, interestingly enough, in Evangeline County at the head of the Evangeline Trail). Knowing that they wanted to use Barachois, the Revels staff linked them with Longfellow's poem, and from that they crafted the through-line for the performance.

This edition of the Revels is somewhat different because it is being performed at the Emerson Majestic Theatre, rather than Sanders Theatre, and one of its purposes is to broaden the reach of the Revels--"to grow audience," as Swanson puts it--outside its Cambridge base. As part of that outreach initiative, they are working with the Boston Renaissance Charter School to get children involved in the production. "To be sure, this will bring in the parents," Swanson admits, "but we have found that once the children become involved, they stay involved over time. They may take a break, but eventually many of them find their way back." The Revels is also planning an annual spring celebration for the school to continue the relationship outside of the performances, and to help foster the next generation of the Revels family.

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