Theater Review: MIDWINTER REVELS: A SOLSTICE CELEBRATION – TALES FROM ELLIS ISLAND (Sanders Theater at Harvard and Online)

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by Lynne Weiss on December 27, 2022

in Theater-Regional


Like the waning of the old year and the arrival of the new that it celebrates, The Revels organization has returned to the stage in 2022 with a new name and new elements that express the organization’s commitment to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion while retaining the beloved traditions that have knit this community of dedicated professionals, enthusiastic volunteers, and devoted audience members together through the decades.

Stephanie Clayman, Ewan Swanson, The Ellis Island Children,
and the Midwinter Revels Adult Chorus

This year’s production, Tales from Ellis Island, (written and directed by Revels Artistic Director Patrick Swanson) opens when the Spirit of Place (Carolyn Saxon) pays tribute to the two-hundred-year-old history of Sanders Theater as well as the ground on which it stands and the Massachusett people who once occupied that land. We are then launched into the story that ties the music, dances, and stories of the production together: two groups of immigrants, some Irish, some Eastern European Jews, find themselves stranded at Ellis Island on Christmas eve in 1924. Ricardo Holguin, as Dr. Hernandez, part of the team of Mexican health care workers assigned to screen would-be immigrants for disease, reads aloud from the Immigration Act of 1924, reminding viewers that the United States has grappled with immigration issues through a long span of its history. After their initial dismay at finding themselves trapped in an immigration processing facility during the holidays, the Irish, Jewish, and Mexican immigrants and nurses find common cause in their desire to note the end of the year and the return of the light, whether they view the event as a pagan, Christmas, or Hanukkah celebration.

The Ellis Island Children, with puppet design by Sara PeattieCarolyn Saxon, Maeve Leahy, and Ewan Swanson

The former Christmas Revels, renamed Midwinter Revels, incorporates these varying traditions. Music Director Elijah Botkin, new to the Revels, brings the arresting clarinet of Glenn Dickson to the forefront in Klezmer-inflected themes, and Rosalba Solis, founder of Boston’s La Pinata, a Latin American cultural and performing arts organization, leads Mayan, Aztec, and traditional Mexican dances that bring a splash of gorgeously colored fabrics, flowers, and set projections (Ari Herzig) to the appropriately drab clothing of the European immigrants. The mummers, a Christmas season tradition from Ireland, of Great Meadows Morris and Sword perform a sword dance and a ritual of killing the old year, and the Ellis Island Children demonstrate children’s games and dances.

Luke Olivier (center) and the Midwinter Revels Adult ChorusMaeve Leahy (left), Ewan Swanson (center),
and dancers from Great Meadows Morris & Sword

Stories of the World War I Christmas truce, of the Irish soldiers who fought on the side of Mexico in the Mexican American War, and of the Prague rabbi who built a golem, a Frankenstein-like monster, to defeat the forces of anti-Semitism are brought to life by puppets (Sara Peattie). Through it all, the ringing baritone of Master of Ceremonies David Coffin, song leader and musician, makes the rafters of Sanders Theater tremble with delight and encourages the audience to play an active role in the festivities through song. Coffin leads the filled seats of Sanders Theater in several numbers, including “Angels We Have Heard on High,” “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” “Shalom Cheverim,” “Lord of the Dance,” and “Dona Nobis Pacem.”

Rosalba Solis

Kept home with a mild case of COVID, this reviewer enjoyed the performance with a virtual ticket. The fine camera work of the recorded version of the show offers close-ups not available to people in the house and a welcome opportunity for people in any location to enjoy the rich cultural mix of Midwinter Revels. At the same time, those of us viewing remotely cannot enjoy that distinctive experience of a live sing-along with the lusty Sanders Theater audience. The only solution is to suggest that those who can do so enjoy both: a live and a virtual performance!

photos by Paul Buckley

Midwinter Revels: A Solstice Celebration – Tales from Ellis Island
Sanders Theater, Harvard University, Cambridge MA
live performances through December 28, 2023
Virtual Event Pass holders will have unlimited VOD access Dec. 29-Jan 8, 2023
for tickets, visit Revels

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