Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's reviews of The Crucible, Fun Home, Irving Berlin's White Christmas, The Soul of Gershwin: The Musical Journey of an American Klezmer, and The Norwegians
I first learned of the Christmas Truce by way of folk singer John McCutcheon's song "Christmas in the Trenches." During the first year of World War I, after six months of fighting, the troops of Great Britain and Germany were burrowed in muddy trenches facing one another, cold, hungry and exhausted. Men on both sides had lost comrades, lost confidence in winning a short-lived war and being back home with their families before the first snow fell, and many had lost their faith in the virtue of their cause. Christmas came with no relief. On Christmas Eve, troops on each side of the divide could hear the other singing from their trenches. Then a lone German soldier walked into no man's land, his unarmed hands in the air, singing the German "Stille Nacht" ("Silent Night").
Soldiers on both sides lay down their arms and climbed out of the trenches. They exchanged food, cigarettes and liquor, showed off photos of families and sweethearts, took photos of themselves arm in arm, sang together and celebrated all through the night. The next day, the leaders on the front agreed that both sides could retrieve the many fallen soldiers whose corpses lay in no man's land for burial. A memorial service was conducted by an English chaplain, as a German seminary student translated it line by line. The celebration continued with a soccer game. Finally, officers from the higher ranks arrived and halted the merriment. The men were severely chastised for this lapse of duty and "unauthorized fraternization," and sent back to their trenches. In due time they resumed killing one another.
All Is Calm portrays this amazing story using songs from the era and actual words of the men involved, drawn from letters, journals, news reports, poems, military records, and even a gravestone inscription. The cast of twelve do not each play a specific character, but take on different voices throughout the show, speaking from the heart and the gut, and then identifying the person speaking. These include those of all ranks, from the lowliest private to high commands. The presentation begins with a prologue, one of the most stirring openings of any show I have ever seen. On a fully dark stage, with wisps of mistor is it smoke?swirling upward, a single voice is heard sweetly singing "Will Ye Go to Flanders?" The face of that voice slowly emerges from the dark, then gradually other voices rise, and other faces come forward, until we have the full cast singing in the most beautiful of harmonies, but looking lost and ghostly, each utterly alonE even as their voices combine.
From this, the narrative progresses through five segments, starting with the naively enthusiastic call to arms and departure of the bright faced enlistees, conscripts and officers, off to make king and country proud. After several rousing songs and patriotic speeches, the tone shifts as the grim reality of actual war sets in. In the course of one song, the tempo changes from cheery to halting, the voices from hearty to a whisper, as the men are overtaken by terror. They endure these harsh conditions for months, with songs of yearning to be home and texts describing the deprivation, fears and losses. Among the most powerful is a soldier's journal entry, read here by Riley McNutt, about seeing the comrade who had become his friend gunned down by a sniper, and his resolve to form no further friendshipsfor such a loss would be too much to bear again.
Christmas arrives and the texts relate the men's efforts to raise some cheer and keep the sense of the holiday. Then comes the miracle of the truce, this unprecedented affirmation of our humanity, with songs in both English and German, and texts offering accounts of the amazement felt by the men. Then, as must be, comes the return to battle. We hear the harsh words of military command, heedless of the absurdity of their insistence that these men are meant to be enemies. The return is accompanied by the singing of "Auld Lang Syne," the most haunting rendition in memory of this ancient song. An epilogue has the men listening to the playing of "The Last Post," a traditional English bugle call, all the more powerful as the only instrument heard after a program of a capella singing. The men then sing "Stille Nacht/Silent Night" again as they retreat back into darkness.
The cast of twelve singer-actors do both the dramatization and choral parts, every one of them singing gloriously and reciting with conviction. The spoken and singing parts glide into one another seamlessly, making the music an aural extension of the spoken words. The actors also have superb facility with a host of accents as they recite various texts by speakers of German, Scot, Irish, and variations of English that reflect locale and social class. Eleven of the twelve cast members in this year's production were returnees from last year, which was reflected in their command of the material, as well as their commitment to this production. Every one of the actors did stand-out work, but special mention must go to James Ramlet's sonorous bass, which held the music to the ground even as the upper registers rose heavenward.
Peter Rothstein directed this assembly of men be fully engaged in their setting at all times. They set up camp, read mail from home, tried to warm themselves and tend to the duties of a soldier in the trenches, creating a sense of the daily grind along with their comradery. The beautiful a capella vocal arrangements are the work of choral conductor Erick Lichte and composer Timothy C. Takach. There was no set, but Marcus Dilliard's lighting design was an integral part of the show, with transitions from day to night, from the gaiety of the farewell to the smoky murk of the trenches, and the emergence of stars that cast a bright light on Christmas Eve. Trevor Bowen's costumes included officer's dress coats, kilted Scotsmen, German helmets, and ragged soldiers' uniforms of soldiers, representing the range of rank and nationality.
Scheduled for only one week, All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914 has completed its run for this year. It bears repeated viewing, and for those who have missed it, hopefully there will be opportunities for years to come. The current state of our world certainly makes this poignant story more than a history lesson, as it speaks to our continued yearning for the possibility of peace. As one speaker puts it, "What would happen if everyone just lay down their arms and walked away? Could we really end the war all by ourselves?" War today, fought with drones and suicide bombers, may be even more intractable, all the more reason that All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914 feels like a prayer for our time.
All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914 was a co-production of Theater Latté Da and Hennepin Theatre Trust. It played December 14-18, 2016, at the Pantages Theatre, 710 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis, MN. For more information, visit www.theaterlatteda.com.
Directed and Written by: Peter Rothstein; Musical Arrangements: Erick Lichte and Timothy C. Takach; Music Director: Erich Lichte; Costume Design: Trevor Bowen; Lighting Design: Marcus Dilliard; Dialect Coach: Keely Wolter; Properties Master: Abbee Warmboe ; Production Manager: Allan Weeks; Stage Manager: Lisa M. Smith; Assistant Stage Manager: Amanda K. Bowman
Cast: Paul R. Coate, Benjamin Dutcher, Brian Frutiger, Brandon Grimes, Michael Gruber, Ben Johnson, Riley McNutt, James Ramlet, Bryan Wells, Andrew Wilkowske; Evan Tyler Wilson, Max Wojtanowicz.