Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914 depicts the true event that occurred on the first Christmas of that long war. The war began in July 2014, with expectation by both sides that they would easily defeat the enemy and be home for Christmas. However, this was a war unlike any before. By December, soldiers were dug into trenches in the Aisne River Valley through France and Belgium, with British and French troops on one side, German troops on the other, and a narrow no-man's land between. Pope Benedict XV called for a truce to allow the men to honor Christmas. Germany agreed to this truce, but the allied forces did not. In November, Winston Churchill (sonorous James Ramlet), then a 39-year-old naval officer, wrote to his wife "What would happen, I wonder, if the armies suddenly and simultaneously went on strike and said some other method must be found of settling the dispute?"
What occurred that Christmas Eve was a response to Churchill's question. Tentatively, the Germans raise a Christmas tree and sing "Stille Nacht," answered across no man's land with "Silent Night" sung by English, Scotch, Welsh, and Irish boys. Peace breaks out. Names, photos and tobacco are exchanged, an impromptu soccer game played with lots of spirited singing. However, once the upper command learn of this festive fraternizing with the enemy, they sternly put a stop to it. The war lasted four more years, costing nine million lives and planting the seeds for another cataclysmic war 21 years later.
All Is Calm uses the actual letters, diary entries, poems, and official documents written by men engaged in the war, giving the show undeniable authenticity. These are interspersed with songs of the era, sung a cappella by ten actors whose voices would be at home in a chorus of angels. The vocal arrangements by Erick Lichte and Timothy C. Takach are astonishingly beautiful. The narrative begins at the very start of the war, with British lads signing up to serve their king, to be part of the great adventure, or to find some meaning in their lives. A recruitment song set to the tune of Irving Berlin's "Alexander's Ragtime Band" is bright and confident. New recruits parade through villages, and sing a "God Save the King" as they sail off to glory.
As the reality of war takes hold, both their letters home and the songs become increasingly glum. A young soldier (Andrew Hey) gives a heartbreaking account of seeing his best pal killed. Conditions are miserable, with the hymn "Holy, Holy, Holy" reworded as "Raining, Raining, Raining," and the mood is summed up by "I Want to Go Home." Then comes the approach of Christmas and the incredible truce. English and German, as well as a Flemish and a French carol, are all heartily sung. The next day, each side grants the other time to bury their numerous dead. Then comes the inevitable and tragic return to war.
With years of experience directing All Is Calm, Peter Rothstein has a firm command of the spell it casts. In the opening prelude the voice of a lone singer asking "Will Ye Go to Flanders?" is heard passing through a haze on stage, his body becoming visible at it takes slow, deliberate steps forward. Gradually, other voices followed by their bodies join in until the full chorus of ten men are facing us, asking this simple question with its existential consequence. It is an overpowering start to a show that never loses its grip on its audience.
The ten actors are all exceptional, both in voice and delivery of heartrending texts, as well as their use of a range of genuine-sounding accents. Each of them deserves mention: Sasha Andreev, Paul R. Coate, Benjamin Dutcher, Andrew Hey, Ben Johnson, Riley McNutt, Rodolfo, James Ramlet, Andrew Wilkowske, and Evan Tyler Wilson. All have experience in past productions of this work, and the superb merging of their tenor, baritone, and bass voices honors their material and the men whose sacrifices they commemorate.
While there is no stage seta few boxes serve as stools, platforms and camp trunksMarcus Dilliard's lighting creates the variety of spaces and atmospheres needed to establish the context of each gripping segment of the production. Trevor Bowen's costumes have the dull colors of military grab, but are distinctive in setting characters apart by rank and nationality. Without the elaborate sets and brightly colored costumes usually on stage at Latté Da productions, this All Is Calm is as strikingly beautiful as anything it has ever mounted.
The events in this play took place 105 years ago, but are of glaring relevance today. In 2018 wars resulting in 1,000 or more deaths were raging in Afghanistan, with the highest death toll for the year at 35,941, followed by Mexico (drug cartels at war, taking 27,765 lives), Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, Somalia, Saudi Arabia, the Congo, Turkey against Kurds, Libya, Mali and South Sudan, with lesser armed conflicts in many more nations. Many of these have been going on for decades, with no clear end that will solve the disputes for which men and women are fighting and losing their lives.
All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914 illustrates, with clarity, urgency, and emotional thrust, our potential to set aside prejudices and hatred of others and celebrate our common humanity. It is an important message to take to heart at any time, but especially at the time of year when we are most apt to ponder the meaning of "peace on Earth, goodwill to all."
All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914 runs through December 29, 2019, at the Ritz Theater, 345 13th Avenue NE, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $33.00 - $99.00. Prices vary with date and demand; check at box office or online for dates desired. Student and educator rush tickets, $15.00, subject to availability, one hour before curtain, two tickets per ID. For tickets call 612-339-3303 or visit theaterlatteda.com.
Playwright and Director: Peter Rothstein; Music Director: Erick Lichte; Musical Arrangements: Erick Lichte and Timothy C. Takach; Costume Design: Trevor Bowen; Lighting Design: Marcus Dilliard; Sound Design: Nicholas Tranby; Properties Master: Abbee Warmboe; Dramaturg: Elissa Adams; Dialect Coach: Keely Wolter; Production Director: Allan Weeks; Stage Manager: D. Marie Long; Assistant Stage Manager: Kyla Moloney; Technical Director: Bethany Reinfeld.
Cast: Sasha Andreev, Paul R. Coate, Benjamin Dutcher, Andrew Hey, Ben Johnson, Riley McNutt, Rodolfo Nieto, James Ramlet, Andrew Wilkowske, Evan Tyler Wilson.