If your name is Susan, you might not want to sit too close to the stage at the 36th annual Christmas Revels. Sankt Nikolaus (Richard Snee) has an accounting book (“I love accounting”) with a page of naughty and nice for every man, woman, child, and adolescent in the world, and on Susan’s naughty page there’s a doozy (“I haven’t seen that one since the Middle Ages”). Hovering ominously is Nicky’s assistant, Knecht Ruprecht (Underground Railway Theater’s Debra Wise), armed with lumps of coal and a ferocious-looking switch.
Ruprecht departs after intermission (“He tells me corporal punishment has a flaw/In Massachusetts it’s against the law”), but this Swiss/German-themed Revels still has plenty of mystery as well as reverence: Frau Holle on the catwalk shaking out her featherbed to create the opening snowfall; the Silvesterchlausen, spooky Swiss New Year’s mummers who come in varieties of “beautiful” and “ugly” (the “ugly” Wüeschte look like the Muppet Sweetums); the staple Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, in half-light, to just David Coffin’s recorder, with its Fool and Hobby Horse and Boy Archer and umbrella-bearing Man-Woman, the audience (or is it Revels members at the back of the house?) stamping out the rhythm. Revels plumbs the German repertoire for neglected sacred music (Samuel Scheidt, Heinrich Schütz), carols familiar (“O Tannenbaum,” “Still Nacht”) and not (“Resonet in laudibus,” “Stille, stille”), and even Schubert lieder (“Muth” from Winterreise). There are two versions of the Legend of Sankt Nikolaus (including the immortal quatrain “Now I lay me down to sleep/A bag of peanuts at my feet/If I die before I wake/Give it to my brother Jake”) plus traditional dances (with a shoe-slapping Schuhplattler performed by audience conscripts including Susan), songs from Die Fröhlichen Kinderlein (“Fuchs du hast die Gans gestohlen” — can the kids get the fox to give back their Christmas goose?), sage counsel from a 16th-century Franciscan (“The gloom of the world is but a shadow; behind the shadow lies joy”), and the usual audience sing-along sections. Giles Holt as a traveling player balances on a slack rope and juggles three knives; after intermission, as a bear, he balances on a bear stand and juggles three bowling pins. (I hope Boston Ballet’s Nutcracker bear is taking notes.)
And then there’s the traditional St. George and the Dragon mummers’ play, this year with Siegfried (David Coffin) as St. George and Fafner (Marty Tulloch and Linnea Coffin) as, well, the Dragon and Brünnhilde (Donald A. Duncan) trying to retrieve the Rheingold and the Cambridge Symphonic Brass Ensemble blasting out the “Ride of the Valkyries” (which during the curtain call they somehow manage to combine with “Joseph, lieber Joseph”). All “shock and awe,” Siegfried dispatches Fafner without too much difficulty, but then he falls victim to the sword dance, and the Groucho-like “Dr. Frood” (Debra Wise again) is summoned to revive him, bringing along a bag of instruments (“What are you, Homeland Security?” he asks when Nick tries to look inside) that include a filmy pink Freudian slip. He’s brought his couch, too, but the case still proves too “complex,” and it’s the Fool who brings our hero back to life, whereupon the Weihnachts Chorus breaks into “The Happy Wanderer” and then the finale from Schütz’s Weihnachtshistorie, Revels, as always, finding the joy behind the shadow.