A Midwinter Night’s Revel by Walking Shadow Theatre Co., performing at Red Eye Theater

Jessie Scarborough-Ghent and Peter Ooley in A Midwinter Night's Revels. Photo by Dan Norman.

Jessie Scarborough-Ghent and Peter Ooley in A Midwinter Night’s Revels. Photo by Dan Norman.

‘Tis the season. We at HowWasTheShow.com have avoided the holiday repeats and the treacly: A Christmas Carol, The Nutcracker, The Sound Of Mucous, The Wizard Of Oz, et al. But the Berglunds did visit Penumbra’s Black Nativity (they liked it). Although not a Xmas show per se, Mari Wittenbreer reviewed the feel-good Sister Act at Chanhassen (and waxed positive). Janet Preus will shortly post her review of Heart Of The Beast’s Xmas show Between The Worlds.

And now here’s me, reviewing Walking Shadow Theatre Company‘s unusual, rich and exquisite, often frustrating Yuletide (not Christmas) fantasy, A Midwinter Night’s Revel (WS performing at Red Eye Theater, through Dec 30).

Written by the estimable John Heimbuch and directed by the always inspired Amy Rummenie, Revel has at its core a brilliant premise: that woven into this humdrum (and English) “real world” of death and work and war (the play is set in 1915) is a mythic Fairy-Land, where obtains immortality, magic and endless fun. And sometimes, in our peripheral vision, if we’re ready (or if we have a magic staff – this will make sense if you see the play), we can see this fantastical world. And sometimes its creatures can visit us – or pull us in.

Our central character, Gwendolen, anxiously awaits news of her husband, Robert, serving across the Channel. She is bolstered by her father, Morien, and by her friends. Swirling around these mere mortals are the fairy figures Titania, Oberon, Puck, etc (Heimbuch freely stea, er, borrows, from Shakespeare’s great A Midsummer Night’s Dream).

A Midwinter Night’s Revel is written in rhyming couplets. But before you let this send you screaming into the long midwinter night, know that Heimbuch handles language brilliantly. His couplets have no singsong staticness. They’re lovely. Indeed, in his use of language Heimbuch reveals himself to be a playwright of poise, power and maturity. It’s the best reason to see A Midwinter Night’s Revel.

However. Ahem. The slavish (imho) use of the Shakespeare original causes Revel to lurch about wildly, be confusing – and overlong. Heimbuch attempts to shoehorn too much material into the play (e.g., the sudden appearance/disappearance of Robert) and too often the play becomes confusing. At the end, we are made to endure an endless, campy and unfunny play-within-the-play and the only reason, so far as I can see, is that the Shakespearean original has a play. The play is not in keeping with Revel‘s sweetly lyrical tone.

For me, Revel works best when it veers away from Shakespeare. The scenes with Gwendolen and Morien and Arthur, as they await news of Robert, are easily the best things in the play. Very moving. Jessie Scarborough-Ghent plays Gwen with understated and quiet power, with real dignity (and she is exquisitely beautiful). Similarly, Peter Ooley excels as Gwen’s father, playing his role with passion. Zach Garcia is wonderful as Arthur, facing his war wound with inspiring courage.

I’m running out of room, but I have say that I greatly enjoyed Neal Beckman‘s endlessly creative bent-knee Puck, Heidi Fellner as the sturdy and powerful Titania, Daniel Ian Joeck as the wild Oberon.

The white deer (puppet creators John Heimbuch – I wonder if he’s related to the playwright – Nick Hillyard, Kit Shelton)! The circle of light (lighting designer Jesse Cogswell)! The design is a marvel. I wish I had space to enthuse more thoroughly.

Okay. A Midwinter’s Night Revel has problems, but the pleasures far outweigh them. The performances are wonderful. Ditto the design. And the play, more effectively than anything I’ve ever seen, explores the wild magic, the mythic power, the wintry lyricism of Yuletide. It’s an antidote to the repeats and the treacle. It’s worthwhile.

John Olive is a writer living in Minneapolis. His book Tell Me A Story In The Dark (about the magic of bed-time stories) has recently been published. His adaptation of Art Dog is running at the Salt Lake Acting Co. His screenplay A Slaying Song Tonight has been optioned. In progress: a theatrical portrait of the great Anna May Wong. www.johnolive.net.

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