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Reunited and it feels so good

Bringing the Balkans together for holiday "Revels"

"The Christmas Revels" takes us to the Balkans this holiday season. Photo courtesy of Puget Sound Revels

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Let us now sing once again (or should we say "carol?") the praises of The Christmas Revels at Tacoma Arts Live's Rialto Theater. It's a mid-December medley of family-friendly skits, songs and instrumental performances that showcase a different, though primarily European, culture each year. As it has been for the past quarter of a century, this production was directed by B. J. Douglas. It relies, once again, on musical direction by, and the lovely voice of, Megan Oberfield. In 2019, Revels travels to a multifaceted culture that has, all too often and tragically, been splintered by the forces of racial, religious and political hatred. That region, which stretches from the northeastern border of Italy east to the Black Sea, is known to us today as the Balkans. It comprises all or part of 11 countries. If it were a single country, it'd be the 40th-largest in the world. Given that it comes as no surprise that the Balkans offer a cornucopia of holiday traditions and treasures -- plus a wealth of exciting, evocative music.

"The very word balkanized has come from that area," said Mary Lynn, Puget Sound Revels' executive director. "We know it means ‘breaking apart into little bits' -- so it's kind of a poignant thing to be doing a show that gathers together this material, because so much of it has been fractured apart. (Yet) the area is full of beautiful material: colorful, heartrending music, strange harmonies that are wonderful to hear. They're not something that we're familiar with ... and there's so much more that binds that material together than pulls it apart."

Consider, for example, the quintet Pashas of Aurora, a subset of the enduring Tacoma band the Makedonians. The Pashas of Aurora join the cast of this year's Revels, bringing along such exotic instruments as the baglama (a Turkish lute), defi (Persian drums), klarino (Greek clarinet), laouto (Greek lute), outi (or oud) and toumbeleki (Macedonian goblet drum).

Bulgarian holiday celebrations feature kukeri, elaborately costumed men (or sometimes women) who perform entertaining rituals to drive away malevolent spirits. "They're in animal skins," Lynn explained, "and they wear these big, heavy bells and have crazy masks on, and they're scary-looking. And this is a tradition that goes back to the Thracians." For those of you scoring at home, that'd make it some 2,300 years old. "They come through the village ringing these bells," Lynn continued, "and looking crazy and dancing crazy dances, and it's meant to cleanse the area."

The Pashas and kukeri perform alongside esteemed regional actor Bill Johns, who's rejoining the company after a year away. An adult choir and children's chorus will back the Seattle Brass Ensemble. This year's mummers' play, a comedic interlude that relies on stock characters in the vein of Commedia dell'Arte, was inspired by folk tales of Hitar Petar ("Sly Peter"), a local yokel who always manages to outsmart visiting city slickers. His sometime opponent in these epic battles of wit is the Mullah Nasrudin (aka Nasreddin), a "wise fool" character beloved by cultures all over the Muslim world.

"It's not familiar territory for most of us," Lynn admitted, but why confine ourselves to the same old holiday routine? Join Puget Sound Revels for a Balkan bonanza of heartwarming holiday cheer.

Note: The 5:30 p.m. performance Dec. 15 will be American Sign Language-interpreted.

THE CHRISTMAS REVELS, 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 14; 1 p.m. and 5:30 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 15; 7:30 p.m., Tuesday and Wednesday, Dec. 17-18, Rialto Theater, 310 S Ninth St., Tacoma, $13-$37.50, 253.591.5894,

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