Told against the foggy and horrifically bleak backdrop of WWI trench warfare, All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914 is a holiday story of a different sort. This year, I have been fortunate to see A Christmas Carol and Miss Bennet, and it feels like All Is Calm could be another Minneapolis holiday classic; instead of focusing on giving or the Christmas spirit, All Is Calm focuses on humanity. It is exactly the kind of message we need now.
Written by Latté Da’s Artist Director Peter Rothstein with musical arrangements by Erick Lichte and Timothy C. Takach, All Is Calm hits the perfect balance of melancholy and liveliness. From the opening moment, the incredibly talented cast of 10 men never leave the stage (Sasha Andreev, Paul R. Coate, Benjamin Dutcher, Andrew Hey, Ben Johnson, Riley McNutt, Rodolfo Nieto, James Ramlet, Andrew Wilkowske, and Even Tyler Wilson). They persist, often switching out hats and other small garments (along with accents) to portray many different people. The play is mostly songs with a loose narrative that strings together many different accounts from letters home and diary entries. Weaving these small paragraphs in between the songs (many of which are classics, some of which I have never heard before) makes the show feel like a latter-day radio play; for those of us who long for community and ritual, All Is Calm feels like the absolute best parts of a Christmas eve service. Keeping their voices large and their stories small and personal, this production does a good job of keeping individuals as well as the larger group in focus. We feel for the men as individuals and as a group, and their humanity remains centered in every story.
And what a story it is! All Is Calm recounts the almost unfathomable tale of how on Christmas eve 1914, soldiers from both sides put down their guns, sung songs with one another, made merry, and even played soccer. It is the kind of story that would be saccharine if it wasn’t true. But it is true. Listening to the music, it makes sense that music could bridge a gap that other overtures could not, and in this way the show fits perfectly within Theater Latté Da’s mission.
The music is phenomenal. From the first note I could feel the audience engage with the performers. The performance is almost entirely a capella, and just like a string of flag bearers, as soon as one song ends another is quickly picked up. It is a testament to the book, the musical arrangement, and the talented cast that the songs flow seamlessly.
The set is nothing but fog and makeshift boxes and feel like one of countless small portals into an unfathomably large battlefield. The bleak carnage of “no man’s land” (the contested and still dangerous strip of land between the trenches) feels perfectly rendered by the minimal set, which is often rearranged to feel like camps or broken into stripy lines to feel like the trenches themselves.
I always wonder, “Why this play now?” A work might be wonderful, but what makes it relevant? Why did this play win out on top of others? In the case of All is Calm, it feels like a happy marriage of relevance and finances. Having already completed several very successful tours, it is wonderful to see this production come home to Minneapolis. I am sure there was pent-up desire to experience this show (at least I know I had pent-up desire!). Less cynical and more important, the artistic choice to look to a moment where mortal enemies put down their weapons and came together as humans--as brothers--seems an almost radical gesture. World and domestic affairs keep us at one another’s throats, and the fear of The Other continues to accelerate. While it would be hyperbole to say, “we all live in trenches,” it does feel like our propensity to barricade and isolate ourselves only worsens. It’s hard to imagine different political parties stopping to have a game of soccer with one another, let alone with those we are currently fighting internationally. By focusing on the real humanity of the participants in the Christmas Truce, All Is Calm makes it clear those who participated were not superhuman saints; they were people. The lesson is clear. We are people. It could be, if we chose, calm.