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.
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