As far back as the heyday of Norse mythology, northern Europeans have cherished and embellished the legend of the Wild Hunt. In some versions, Odin or one of his chief minions led a party of the dead on a rampage through nighttime woods. The legend inspired creations from a Liszt étude to a Mike Mignola Hellboy comic. A heard-but-unseen “great hunt” charges through The Hobbit‘s Mirkwood, and covers of Stan Jones’ “Ghost Riders in the Sky” are perennial staples on country radio. There are whispers to this day that if one listens closely on a dark winter’s night, one might hear the baying of unearthly hounds and the excited cries of hunters long estranged from the halls of the living.
A more recent adaptation of the tale comes to us from French settlers in the Canada of the 1800s. In this version, a rich nobleman named Gallery loves hunting so much he forgoes Sunday mass in favor of more of it. For his irreligiosity, he’s condemned to spend his afterlife as prey, pursued through the night sky by ravenous, spectral wolves. When French-Canadian trappers told this story to people of the First Nations, the trappers learned of a similar, indigenous story. The First Nations take was more of a “Wild Fishing Trip” story in which dead sportsmen sped through the night aboard a flying canoe. It’s this version, “the Gallery hunt” or la Chasse-galerie in French, with additional details attached, that formed the basis of this year’s production of The Christmas Revels.
Tacoma’s production is, as usual, stage directed by BJ Douglas under Puget Sound Revels’ executive director, Mary Lynn. We started our discussion with Lynn by mentioning unusual circumstances imposed last year by COVID-19. “Yes,” Lynn recalled, almost groaning, “wasn’t that a challenge?” Douglas couldn’t find a way to safely rehearse or stage a show, so instead the company shot “a little Revels movie” in the summer of 2020 for release during the holiday season. “It kept the merriment flowing, but it was all-new territory for us. … It was very different from everyone up at the Rialto singing and dancing. … The only person who had any experience was [Olympia editor] Shelly Lively, and she was wonderful to work with us. We learned many things.”
A return to live production this year “is an enormous relief,” Lynn agreed, “although it’s tricky ground, y’know? It’s like some kind of COVID shuffle. You never know who might’ve been exposed, so there’s a COVID Zoom chair in every rehearsal.” That way, cast members who are sick or potentially exposed can rehearse their parts and songs from afar.
“We did a French-Canadian voyageur show in 2006,” Lynn recalled. (Voyageurs, also known as coureurs des bois or “runners in the woods,” were French-Canadian trappers who transported their wares via canoe.) “A really wonderful, new twist is having Ben Hunter work with us, so he’s featured. Bill Johns is an actor we’ve worked with before, and he’s the priest in the village, kind of a through line in the telling of the story. But Ben, who is a storyteller and a fiddler and a multi-instrumentalist, [is] a very creative person who is familiar with lots of traditions … He’s going to be an itinerant storyteller, a fiddler, who comes into the village.” Hunter and Joe Seamons took first place in the 2016 International Blues Competition, and Hunter’s the founder and director of Community Arts Create in Seattle.
“The set design is a little different this year,” Lynn continued. “It’s a little more stylized, just because our set designer is brilliant and he never does the same thing twice, even if we do a similar show.” The Christmas Revels 2021 is set in 18th-century Trois-Rivières (“Three Rivers”), southern Quebec, Canada, at the confluence of the Saint-Maurice and Saint Lawrence rivers. “There’s a French-Canadian kid in [our] children’s chorus whose family is from the Trois-Rivières area,” Lynn noted. “How ’bout that? Very authentic!”
Given the Quebecois nature of this year’s episode, I asked Lynn if company members were working on their Céline Dion accents. “No, it’s Yogi Bear,” she replied, laughing. “I never knew until we did this show back in 2006: Yogi Bear was French-Canadian. Who knew?”
Masking and proof of vaccination will be required to see the show in person. Lynn plans a video capture of the show for those unable or unwilling to meet COVID safety requirements. To follow those developments, keep checking the Puget Sound Revels link below.
For this production, said Lynn, “The idea was that we’ve been through dark and ominous the last 18, 20 months. Revels is bright and lively and funny.” As in many tellings of the Chasse-galerie legend, however, “there is this pact with the Devil that has unintended consequences.” In this popular variant of the tale, Old Scratch offers itinerant hunters a high-speed round trip to their sweethearts in a flying canoe, but also warns he’ll capture their souls forever if the hunters should blaspheme or steer their canoe into a church steeple. Never fear, the whole adventure gets resolved to the Devil’s detriment in a joyous, climactic party scene. “You might think a pact with the Devil is pretty serious,” Lynn conceded, “but it’s hilarious.”
Photo credits: Nasjonalmuseet, Puget Sound Revels, Benjamin Hunter Photography.
The Christmas Revels
Saturday, Dec. 18 and Wednesday, Dec. 22 at 2 p.m.;
Saturday, Dec. 18 and Tuesday, Dec. 21 at 7:30 p.m.;
Sunday, Dec. 19 at 1 p.m. and 5:30 p.m.
Rialto Theater, 310 S. 9th St., Tacoma
$16.75 – $44.25 (prices shown include ticketing fees)