THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE REALLY BAD Bobbie Steinbach's St. Peter checks out Wicked John.
" 'Tis a gift to be simple," goes the beginning of the Shaker hymn "Simple Gifts," and it's been taken to heart in the 39th annual production of The Christmas Revels (at Sanders Theatre through December 27). The theme this year is America — Shaker America, Appalachian America, African-American America, and Native American America. The special guests are traditional singer and clogger Suzannah Park, gospel singer Janice Allen, and flute player Leon Joseph Littlebird. "Staying home for the holidays" is how the Revels folks explain it.
And no one stays home like Revels. After music director George Emlen's "An American Overture" (which weaves together "The Cherry Tree Carol," "Children, Go Where I Send Thee," "I Will Bow and Be Simple," and "Go Tell It on the Mountain"), Littlebird speaks in the persona of Oglala Sioux chief Black Elk (1863–1950), who saw the Earth as a world of intersecting circles and hoops, with the Tree of Life at its center. This is a roots Christmas Revels, and trees are everywhere. Littlebird nourishes an invisible one (or is it? — in Shaker belief, the Tree of Life is visible to the pure) center stage; later, a small evergreen ("Some things just go on forever") is brought out and decorated with homely ribbons and apples. For the second half of the show, a Tree of Life quilt is unfolded and displayed before being refolded into the baby Jesus's swaddling clothes during "The Cherry Tree Carol." The set itself is a study in basic wood and other materials: two small wooden cabins, one with a stone chimney, the other with a stovepipe chimney, both leaning precariously; three or four clotheslines hung with wash; Shaker-plain benches; a tin laundry bucket; a woven basket; a broom; a bellows; in front, a smithy. The performers wear genuine American apparel: slouchy hats, bonnets, plaid shirts, vests, bandannas, aprons, with patches everywhere.
What's gratifying is how the disparate roots grow into one tree. Littlebird starts off the second half with a Navajo hunting chant; that leads straight into the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, a Christmas Revels staple that, in the spooky twilight, almost looks like a Hopi kachina ceremony. Beribboned from head to foot, the Jonkonnu Boxing Day mummers resemble yucca kachinas. The Native American tom-tom that stands center stage at the beginning beats out a 4/4 march rhythm similar to that of shape-note hymns like "Wondrous Love."
The first half is anchored by "Wicked John and the Devil," an Appalachian Jack tale in which blacksmith Wicked John (Brian Claflin) uses the three wishes he's granted by St. Peter (local favorite Bobbie Steinbach) to derail the Devil, only to find, when Death sets him free, that neither Heaven nor Hell will have him. The mummers' play of the second half is appropriately short and, apart from the unhousebroken horse, straightforward, with Revels' Smoky Mountain Dancers clogging their way through the longsword dance that brings about the death of John Barleycorn. No gags or gimmicks are needed, not when you have Allen rocking the joint with "Children, Go Where I Send Thee" and Park with her nasal twang beaming like the bright morning star and the Roaring Gap Dancers and Chorus bringing willow-tree authenticity to "I Will Bow and Be Simple." This is one of the best Christmas Revels ever. Go tell it on the mountain.