Irish tykes in 1907 aboard the RMS Carpathia steaming from Liverpool to New York wail their dismay when they learn that they’ll still be shipboard on December 25 in the current edition of “The Christmas Revels.”
“Father Christmas can find you anywhere, even in the middle of the ocean,” the kindly Purser (Steven Barkhimer) reassures them.
Indeed, there’s no place in the world where Father Christmas and the Cambridge-based Revels, Inc. can’t find the open-hearted and share with them Yuletide traditions in all their glorious variety.
In none of its 41 previous peregrinations has the Christmas Revels ever done a purely Irish show. So this 42nd edition is especially personally meaningful to half-Irish Revels Artistic Director Paddy Swanson, who wrote the script.
In Act II he recreates the moment that left him awestruck when as a young lad making his first crossing, he saw Lady Liberty for the first time, an epiphany recreated near the end of the production with the recitation of Emma Lazarus’ famous sonnet: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
Steerage passengers often had to amuse themselves below decks without today’s liners’ floorshows or climbing walls. Guest vocalist and tradition-bearer from the Aran Islands, Mary Casey, confirms, “Irish people have always had a way of entertaining themselves with or without music.”
A favorite DIY method was storytelling, here embodied by another guest star, Billy Meleady, who plays the Poet in exile or seanchaí (storyteller). Meleady relates the Revels basic format to the Irish pastime of sing-song. “Here at Sanders we’re bringing a singsong to a larger audience, recreating what usually happens in smaller rooms, Irish kitchens and bars. A singsong is really about sharing. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have a voice. The others will help you along. The thing is to participate.”
For over four decades Christmas Revels has been following this philosophy as the most participatory holiday show in town with its program book filled with music and lyrics for singalongs and the intermission dance with the cast to “The Lord of the Dance.”
The Rattling Brogues give viewers several samples of what impromptu seisúns are like, playing the pennywhistle, uilleann pipes, fiddle, bodhrán, and, of course, the harp. The O’Shea-Chaplain Academy of Irish Dance don their jig shoes to do a few sets of crowd-pleasing step dancing.
Seventeen-year veteran costume designer Heidi Hermiller garbs her passengers in period-appropriate tweeds, scaly caps and shawls, but gets to display her imagination with some undersea creatures and the haunting straw figures in the mummers’ play.
This past weekend Dorchester’s own Kieran Jordan starred in a distinct, but similar Irish Christmas Revels at sea production as part of Dartmouth’s 50th anniversary celebration of the Hopkins for the Arts.
All the music and singing in this edition of the Cambridge Revels is available in a brand new studio-recorded CD “Strike the Harp” available through revels.org, just in case you can’t snag any of the few remaining tickets for this transatlantic triumph, which runs through December 27.