As the days get shorter and the nights get colder, Washingtonians brace themselves for a barrage of family commitments, holiday parties, religious services and fevered gift shopping. Holidays, for many of us, represent an upsetting uptick in overall activity. Sometimes it’s good to slow down and enjoy some of the many shows and events the D.C. area has to offer around this time of year. The Washington Revels have been presenting their annual Christmas Revels at GWU’s Lisner Auditorium since 1983. The theme of the Christmas Revels changes every year. This year’s show, Celestial Fools, showcases a broad range of talented artists who have come together to present one of the best—and most unique—holiday offerings in the area.
Every Christmas Revels features music, dance, sing-a-longs and storytelling which is woven together by a loose, overarching plot. Celestial Fools takes place in a fictional village modeled after the peasant paintings by Pieter Brugel the Elder. Over 100 immaculately-costumed performers populate this village. These performers welcome a visit from this years guest artists, the titular “fools,” who represent different celestial bodies and weave folk performances from their distinct cultures into the show.
The guest artists all have very impressive performance backgrounds. Karim Nagi, who plays The Sun Fool, is an Egyptian immigrant whose work spans 14 albums and a variety of instruments and genres which introduce audiences to traditional Arab music. Shizumi Shigeto Manale, The Moon Fool, is a prestigious dancer who served as the Artistic Director of the National Cherry Blossom Festival’s Opening Ceremony for several years. Trained in Noh and Kyogen theater and Jiuta-mai dance, Manale brings to the Revels a uniquely Japanese twist. Aside from his role as The Stars Fool, Mark Novak is a rabbi and musician who is also a co-founder of The MultiFaith Storytelling Institute. He represents a variety of Jewish cultures in the Celestial Fools.
Prior to the arrival of these “Visitors from the East,” the audience is treated to a variety of choral arrangements of traditional music, as well as the instrumental accompaniment of the Bruegel Brass and Village Band. The Village Band features three guest artists: Seth Kibel on clarinet/flute, Vladimir Fridman on guitar and Bob Abbott on string bass. It’s clear that Costume Designer Rachael Feola and Children’s Costume Designer Cecily Pilzer—among many other costume managers, assistants and interns—took great care in outfitting the dozens upon dozens of medieval peasants that made up the Solstice Singers, Yuletide Teens and Celestial Children. Costumes were consistent and well-matched to designer Andrew Cohen’s gorgeous, aesthetically pleasing set.
Standout songs in the first act include the Solstice Dancer’s version of the “Millwheel Dance,” which pulls inspiration from Bavarian and French Clog dances and celebrates the harvest. The adorable Celestial Children were, of course, wonderful throughout the program. These young professional performers were particularly wonderful during “Baba mi pojde, more, na pazaro (Grandma Went to the Market)”—a Bulgarian song which had the kids imitating various animals that you might encounter at a market. The village women’s Macedonian song “Što mi e milo (How Happy I Am)” is one of the many great Eastern European tunes picked for this Revels.
After the Sun, Moon and Stars Fools arrive, we are treated to “Jalla man qad sawarak (Great is the One Who Made You).” This muwashshah, a musical form in classical Arabic, features Elisabeth Myers on vocals, Karim Nagi playing the riqq (a tambourine used in traditional Arabic music) and Sufi-inspired dances. The Village Band is featured in “Frailach Medley,” a lively medley of klezmer frailachs, which were circle dances typically heard at celebrations in Eastern European Jewish communities. Part One of Celestial Fools wraps up in traditional fashion, with the cast leading the audience out of the auditorium as they sing “Lord of the Dance.”
Part Two opens in the misty darkness that precedes the Winter Solstice. Three of the most beautiful songs in this year’s Revels accompany the return of light to the village. Manale, The Moon Fool, performs a traditional dance on a mostly-bare stage while the villagers sing the “Traveller’s Prayer.” There is something about the juxtaposition of the intentional movements of Manale’s Japanese dance with the folksy English composition which enhances both. It’s difficult not to be moved by the performances from very different cultures blending seamlessly as the moon’s light returns.
The Celestial Children return to sing “By’n Bye” as Novak’s The Stars Fool has them light a menorah. These meditative moments lead in to the soothing medieval Georgian hymn “Shen khar venakhi (You Are a Vineyard).” The full English translation of this hymn dedicated to the Virgin Mary is worth reading:
“You are a vineyard newly blossomed.
Young, beautiful, growing in Eden,
(A fragrant poplar sapling in Paradise.)
(May God adorn you. No one is more worthy of praise.)
You yourself are the sun, shining brilliantly.”
As the song comes to a close, Karim Nagi’s Sun Fool brings his bright light back to the village. “Dona nobis pacem (Grant Us Peace)” is the perfect sing-a-long for this year’s Revels, as the show emphasizes so much of what’s good and beautiful about several wildly divergent world cultures. The show ends as it does every year: with a reading of Susan Cooper’s poem “The Shortest Day” and the participatory “Sussex Mummers Carol.”
Celestial Fools features all of the things that fans know and love about The Christmas Revels. Some of this year’s performances are of a deeper, more contemplative variety than some of the past themes would have accommodated, making this a unique Revels for newcomers and old timers alike. As expected, The Washington Revels continue to offer up a stellar, hit holiday show. The Washington Revels’ Celestial Fools is an unmissable treat for the whole family.
Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes, including one 20-minute intermission.
The Christmas Revels’ Celestial Fools plays through December 15, 2019, at the Washington Revels at GWU’s Lisner Auditorium—730 21st Street Northwest in Washington, D.C. Tickets can be purchased online.
Thanks Darby, you captured the essence of the experience beautifully.