creating community through celebration

A Revels Bestiary - July/August 2009

“Never appear onstage with animals or small children” is an old show business axiom. In Revels performances we ignore this dictum with great regularity, After all, Revels just wouldn’t be Revels without the inclusion of kids. We love to see them perform - all ages from rug rats through adolescents. Animals however, regardless of age, are a different matter.

Looking back over our two and a half decades of Christmas shows, I am struck by how often we have presented audiences with feathered and four legged revellers. Mind you, I’m leaving our ubiquitous Dragons out of the discussion for now (expect to see a future column devoted exclusively to them), and I’m also omitting anthropomorphic deer, donkeys, hobby horses, basketry bulls and Billy Goats Gruff that display human appendages beneath their lower hems. I’m talking about animals that scratch, squawk, bark, and do other less savory things on stage.

I think our involvement with the animal kingdom began in earnest in 1991 when Paddy Swanson, the Artistic Director of Revels Cambridge, came west to share with us a new show he had been developing, The Celestial Fools.

Paddy (who had been living on a farm) seemed to find ways to include live animals in the show at every turn, and so we gathered quite a few of them. I know this to be true because four of them - a trio of red hens named Patty, Maxine, and Laverne, and Hershey the La Mancha goat were all crashing in my garage. Every rehearsal and performance day, the merry tribe of us would crowd into in my little red jeep and commute across Berkeley to the Scottish Rite Theatre, much to the amazement our fellow motorists.

They were joined on stage by a very nice woman who had her own menagerie, consisting of a potbellied pig on a leash, some sort of bird (I think it was a cockatoo or a parrot) on her shoulder, and a monkey which was cute enough to beguile all the children in the chorus and ill-tempered enough to require stern warnings to any who would approach too close.

I frankly don’t recall what all of these creatures had to do with the show itself, but one of my favorite Revels memories was witnessing Alex Kirkpatrick, the Scottish Rite building manager, arrive back stage by means of the freight elevator. Hershey and several of his companions had been quartered in a sort of straw-strewn antechamber, and as Alex levitated to stage level, he found himself nose to nose with our caprine performer. “My God, that’s a goat!“, exclaimed Mr. Kirkpatrick, in his finest Scottish burr. “Bleahhhhh” observed Hershey, in his best goat.

First impressions notwithstanding, the Scottish Rite indulged us in our barnyard follies and over the next several years we continued to populate the stage with miniature sheep, not-so-miniature dogs and other livestock. One year, costumer Callie Floor’s cockapoo, Django, was featured, flirting with danger in the hands of a Sorcerer’s Apprentice - and an illustrious stage career was launched. Another year, the McMillan family’s Greyhounds added stature and gravitas to the proceedings in a medieval court, and of course our Mayday festivities would never be complete without the participation of one of the goats from the petting paddock of the Oakland Zoo.

But there were two episodes of onstage animal revelry that really stand out, although one of them did not technically involve animals at all.

In 1997, we did a Breton-themed Christmas show that featured the Arthurian legend of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Now It seemed to me very wrong to have the eponymous antagonist of the story just come trudging onstage, looking like a hydrocephalic artichoke when the original story had him riding boldly in on his green charger. And so we recruited Fillyfad, a beautiful white mare to join the production. By means of clever lighting, we were able to “paint” her green and her arrival in the court of King Arthur (in truth more of a slow walk than a vaulting gallop) drew appreciative gasps from the audience.

Unfortunately, Fillyfad seemed to have a thing about pikes and halberds (the long pointy things that kings’ guards always hold). She flat out didn’t like them, and rehearsal didn’t help her get over it. Rather she came to anticipate her meeting with the palace guard, and unless we were very careful to keep the offending instruments out of her line of sight, she was apt to turn on her heel (s) and carry the Green Knight right back to whence he came, whether or not he had concluded his business with Sir Gawain. In addition, Fillyfad would then conclude some business of her own, perhaps as an expression of her displeasure.

No account of animals on the Revels stage would be complete though, without mentioning the 1992 adventure of Benjamin Britten’s Noah’s Flood. Lisby Mayer, our intrepid founder, had a vision of Jack Langstaff singing the role of Noah, surrounded by 1.000 schoolchildren masked and costumed as various animals on the Ark. A massive outreach program was set up, mask designers were dispatched to the schools, an orchestra was assembled and on performance days, school busses disgorged hundreds of costumed youngsters into staging areas around the Scottish Rite Theatre.

While cast size and composition fluctuated a bit from performance to performance, and I don’t think we ever quite fulfilled Lisby’s dream of 1,000 participants (the number 495 sticks in my memory), nonetheless the sound of all those young voices raised in the Kyrie and the Tallis Canon was astonishingly beautiful. I will always cherish the final image of the show, where God entrusts a shining globe, and therefore the future of the planet, into the hands of the children who played the Raven and the Dove in a lovely metaphorical expression of Revels values.

Now it has been pointed out to me that we seem to have slacked off a bit in the critter department in more recent winter shows, and this is something we plan to remedy. Animals onstage have become yet another California Revels tradition and whether we find ourselves in farmstead, fen or forest glade, we’ll always feature fur, feathers, and fins in our Revels celebrations.

- David Parr, Artistic Director