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All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914

An emotionally powerful look at a spontaneous outbreak of peace during World War I—suffused with music.

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Mike McGowan, David Darrow, Sasha Andreev, James Ramlet, Evan Tyler Wilson, Benjamin Dutcher, Tom McNichols, Rodolfo Nieto and Riley McNutt in a scene from “All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914” (Photo credit: Dan Norman)

Mark Dundas Wood

Mark Dundas Wood, Critic

You may have read about the Christmas Truce of 1914—a brief pause in battle during the early part of World War I that saw Allied soldiers singing, drinking, exchanging gifts and playing football with their Central Powers enemies, in defiance of expectation and without permission from higher authorities. They even helped to bury each other’s dead.

With Peter Rothstein’s All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914, you’ll feel you’ve been transported to the great stretch of No Man’s Land along the Western Front where these unlikely events took place. It’s a forlorn corner of hell, where men sick of war create a makeshift celebration, a semblance of normalcy. One soldier marvels at the fact that he, his fellows, and their mortal enemies participated in such an unlikely event—that they collectively managed to create something that even Pope Benedict XV (who’d suggested such a cessation of hostility) had failed to make happen. And, considering the scale of the truce, it must have been a truly extraordinary experience. There are only 10 performers onstage here, but, in reality, tens of thousands of soldiers participated in this extemporaneous outbreak of peace.

In this deeply moving production, the actors give voice to the real-life words of a variety of soldiers who took part in the unorthodox celebration. After a character speaks his piece, he identifies himself by name, stating the division in which he served. It’s a little like the tags in the narration of letters and diaries in a Ken Burns documentary.

But these speeches are only a part of the soundscape. The production is suffused with music—all of it a cappella vocalizing by the cast. We hear barracks songs, patriotic songs, hymns and drinking songs—and, of course, Christmas carols. Erick Lichte and Timothy C. Takach’s arrangements are exceptionally rich and intricate. The singer-actors weave a choral spell that is not soon forgotten. One could try to single out certain cast members or singers as exceptional, but this is truly the quintessential ensemble show. That such fine singers could also take on multiple speaking roles—portraying Britons, Irishmen, Scots, Welshmen, Germans, and others so convincingly—is impressive indeed.

Benjamin Dutcher (far right) and cast in a scene from “All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914” (Photo credit: Dan Norman)

Rothstein, who directed this iteration of the piece, originally wrote it as a radio play. Certainly, its principal pleasures are auditory, but the staging here enhances the sound elements. The production is simply but effectively mounted on a mostly bare stage, with crates and boxes serving as furniture in some scenes. Lighting designer Marcus Dillard’s work is essential to the look of the production: he recognizes that, in this world, darkness seems the default condition and light a scarce commodity. Trevor Bowen’s uniformly dark costumes give us hints of characters’ nationalities: kilts for Scottish soldiers, spiked helmets for the Germans. (We follow just the United Kingdom contingent during the first part of the play, and then, later, certain cast members break off from the others to portray German fighters.)

All Is Calm has, coincidentally, played in New York this season at the same time as another World War I musical, Prospect Theater Company’s The Hello Girls (by Peter Mills and Cara Reichel). In both plays, soldiers’ streaks of disobedience serve as a key dramatic element. In The Hello Girls, we see the groundbreaking women of an American military switchboard unit quietly breaking the rules—for instance, by keeping secret diaries of their wartime experiences. In Rothstein’s play, we find the British soldiers with hints of mutiny in their eyes after having been berated by their commanders for participating in the truce. They grit their teeth and quietly but defiantly sing—to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne”—“We’re here because we’re here because we’re here…” With both plays, we root for the soldiers because they have been able to retain a certain amount of agency in a world in which obedience is everything.

This is the Off-Broadway debut of All Is Calm, which Theater Latté Da produces annually in Minneapolis/St. Paul. The show has also toured extensively since its debut a decade or so ago. If you don’t get to see it this year, you may have a chance in coming holiday seasons. At 70 minutes, it’s compact and concise, but it’s not a minor production. It’s very much worth seeing—and hearing.

All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914 (through December 30, 2018)

A Theater Latté Da Production, presented by Laura Little Theatrical Productions

Loreto Theater at Sheen Center for Thought & Culture, 18 Bleeker Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-925-2812 or visit http://www.sheencenter.org

Running time: 70 minutes with no intermission

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Mark Dundas Wood
About Mark Dundas Wood (14 Articles)
Mark Dundas Wood contributes to the Bistro Awards website and The Clyde Fitch Report in addition to Theaterscene.net. Previously he wrote for American Theatre and Backstage. Credits as dramaturg include New Professional Theatre and the New York Musical Theatre Festival. His stage adaptation of Henry James’ "The Tragic Muse" appeared at the Metropolitan Playhouse. He received an MFA in theater (dramaturgy) from Columbia University.
Contact: Twitter

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