Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Conceived and written by Latté Da's artistic director Peter Rothstein as a radio play, in its original staging Theater Latté Da partnered with the choral group Cantus, with members of Cantus performing the carols and actors cast by Latté Da providing excerpts from letters, diaries, soldiers' poetry, government orders, news dispatches, and other documents linked to the Christmas Truce. This year, Cantus bowed out in order to offer other holiday programming, so Theater Latté Da is going it alone. With no disrespect to the wonderful contributions made by Cantus these past seven years, Latté Da has elevated what was a beautiful and heartrending show into a magnificent work of art.
The program runs only 75 minutes but makes every moment count. It opens in darkness with the haunting "Will Ye Go to Flanders?" sung by the cast of 12 actors who gradually emerge into the light. From this prelude, we travel back to the patriotic and optimistic spirit that led to thousands of Britain's finest enlisting to serve their king and country. Everyone was certain the war would be short lived, with the enemies soundly defeated.
The next section has our fighting men coming to grips with the harsh reality of the war, with each song or passage of text presenting a grimmer outlook. Now we are hearing not only Englishmen, but German voices, though their thoughts and fears are much the same. With the war in its sixth month, Christmas is now approaching, and we hear both through song and text the melancholy of soldiers away from their families and homeland at the holidays.
Then comes the truce, that remarkable occurrence that even Pope Benedict XV, in an appeal to all parties in the war, could not bring about. It begins with a German soldier bravely emerging from the trench on Christmas Eve to sing "Stille Nacht," then other Germans joining in and the British responding with their own "Silent Night." Throughout the night, songs in both English and German ring back and forth, men who spoke different languages traded cigarettes, showed off family photos, shared food and drink. In the morning, the light of day reveals the corpses of fallen comrades between the trenches, and the truce is extended in order to bury the dead, Germans and British helping one another with this grim labor. After that, a game of soccer! Christmas had come to the trenches.
The commanding officers, however, cannot allow such fraternization to continue, lest the war itself be undermined. The men are ordered to desist, to return to their trenches and their deadly watch on one another. To the most mournful rendition of "Auld Lang Syne" I have ever heard, the men resume their places, with looks of disbelief that the good fellows across the narrow strip of no man's land are in fact their enemies.
The twelve actors do not each play a single character, but trade off, each taking different parts: Englishmen, Scots, Irish and Germans, officers and enlisted men. Each possesses a beautiful voice, singing gloriously whether in solo or choral work. Rising above them all, James Ramlet's booming bass serves as the bedrock for all the others. These dozen actors also bring full hearts to their speaking parts, with Paul R. Coate, Michael Gruber, and Sean Nugent standing out among excellent peers. Further, the actors have terrific facility with the various accents they are called on to deploy, German, Scot, Irish, and different variations of English to reflect locale and social class.
Director Peter Rothstein has attended to every detail in this production. There is not a moment in which every one of the twelve actors is not engaged, busy with the tasks and pastimes of soldierly life, either responding to the words of their comrades, or lost in their own meditations. Erick Lichte and Timothy C. Takach are responsible for the musical arrangements, creating utterly sublime a capella harmonies. Marcus Dilliard designed lighting that is a powerful element in the show. The transitions between day and night, and the emergence of stars casting light across no man's land underscore the universal nature of these men's hopes and fears. Trevor Bowen's costumes appear to accurately reflect the range of uniforms worn up and down the ranks.
As it only was scheduled for one week, All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914 has completed its run for this year. Hopefully, it will return next year and many more to come. It offers a beautifully wrought performance, and delivers a message of hope and humanity that remains desperately needed in our fractured world.
All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914, a co-production of Theater Latté Da and Hennepin Theatre Trust, played December 16 20, 2015, at the Pantages Theatre, 710 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis, MN. For more information on Theater Latté Da productions, visit www.theaterlatteda.com.
Directed and Written by: Peter Rothstein; Musical Arrangements: Erick Lichte and Timothy C. Takach; Music Director: Erich Lichte; Associate Music Director: John Lynn; Set Design: Rich Polenek; Costume Design: Trevor Bowen; Lighting Design: Marcus Dilliard; Dialect Coach: Keely Wolter; Properties Master: Benjamin Olsen; Production Manager: Dylan Wright; Stage Manager: Lisa M. Smith; Assistant Stage Manager: Tiffany K. Orr
Cast: Paul R. Coate, Benjamin Dutcher, Brian Frutiger, Brandon Grimes, Michael Gruber, Ben Johnson, Riley McNutt, Sean Nugent, James Ramlet, Bryan Wells, Evan Tyler Wilson, Max Wojtanowicz.