Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's review of It's a Wonderful Life
All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914 is the true story of an improbable, some might say miraculous, event between the trenches occupied by British, Scotch and French on one side and German troops on the other. Both sides expected to easily defeat their opponents in the war, which became known as "the war to end all wars," though sadly, it was not. No one expected to still be fighting, at a deadly impasse, as the days shortened and yuletide arrived. The trenches were cold, damp, miserable constructions that ran for miles through France and Belgium, the last place those demoralized soldiers wanted to be for Christmas.
Remarkably, an impromptu truce occurred in one section of the front, initiated by a few German soldiers, with the Allied soldiers promptly responding in kind. There was singing of Christmas hymns in both languages, exchanges of family photos, and trading of cigarettes and other scarce commodities. In the morning light, their immediate officers on both sides agreed to allow their men to bury the bodies of their dead comrades, strewn mercilessly on the ground of no-man's land between the two trenches. After this grim duty, a soccer ball appeared and it was Germans against British, a raucous but good spirited game. The Christmas truce came to an end when higher level officers arrived, livid at the grave offense of fraternizing with the enemy.
We know this is true and not apocryphal because All Is Calm is based completely on letters written by men who were there, along with diary entries and official reports, adorned by several poems from the pens of soldiers. Between the recitations of these statements, songs of the era are sung a capella in stunningly beautiful choral arrangements by Erich Lichte and Timothy C. Takach, as demonstrations of the changing moods. They range a jaunty "Come On and Join," set to the tune of "Alexander's Ragtime Band," as Englishmen sign up for the war they expect to be an easily one, rip-roaring adventure, to a morose "I Want to Go Home" as they experience the misery of the trenches, to beautifully wrought Christmas carols, expressing the light of peace still alive within them, despite the violence they have inflicted and endured.
Every element of All Is Calm works in perfect harmony with the others. From the opening scene, one soldier barely visible through a cloud of smoke, a ghost returning from his horrific past while singing the tenderly plaintiff "Will Ye Go to Flanders," a traditional Scottish tune. He is gradually joined by others, combining voices and imagery that draw us into their company as they revisit a most incredible Christmas past. Marcus Dillard's lighting design and Nicholas Tranby's sound design cast a spell that establishes a dreamlike aura, which continues throughout the show. Trevor Bowen's costumes have an authentic look about them, and represent the variety of men thrown together by war, Scots, English and German, country bumpkins and gentlemen. Abbee Warmboe provides props for their encampment that look like artifacts from a history museum.
This wonderful artistry surrounds the eleven men on stage who bring All Is Calm to glorious life. I would be hard pressed to single out any one, but all deserve mention hereSasha Andreev, Phineas Bynum, David Darrow, Nicholas Davis, Benjamin Dutcher, Ben Johnson, Riley McNutt, Rodolfo, James Ramlet, Andrew Wilkowske, and Evan Tyler Wilson, all veterans of past productions of this work. Each one shines at every solo turn they are given; collectively, their harmonizing is sweet enough to induce tears.
While the singing is powerful, spoken lines also express depth of feeling, be it glee, regret, fear, grief, hope, or any other shade of human emotion. In one heartbreaking passage a soldier describes watching his best friend be shot down in the trench, and the agony of not being able to go to his friend's side, lest he suffer the same fate. In a lighter passage, a soldier describes his company's lighthearted parade through English villages on their way to join the fighting, cloaked in an innocence that will soon abandon them. Each of these is made gripping by the combination of their author's voice and the actor's sensitive delivery. The range of dialects also bear a sense of authenticity, with Keely Wolter providing excellent dialect coaching.
Peter Rothstein, Theater Latté Da's founder and artistic director, repeats his role as director of this year's production. With every actor on stage for the entirety of All Is Calm, their every move is intentional, as they form different groupings that poke at one another good naturedly, unpack supplies, shiver in the winter cold, or otherwise depict the reality in the trenches.
In November 1914, Winston Churchill (spoken by 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?" The following month, the men fortunate enough to be at the scene of the Christmas truce seemed ready to seek an answer to that question. Tragically, it was not to be, as the war dragged on for four more years, a loss of life estimated at forty million, more than half of those civilians. The Christmas truce was never repeated. Far from being the war to end all wars, that conflict planted the seeds for the second world war, with a long string of armed conflicts following, continuing to this day. In 2020, more than 120,000 people died fighting in wars around the world.
Still, All Is Calm shows us that the impulse to lay down arms, and to ask the question "Why am I trying to kill that man, who has done nothing to me?" lies within us. Entering the season when peace is meant to be the highest of virtues, this poignant masterful show is a welcome reminder that "Peace on Earth" need not be merely a dream.
All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914 runs through January 2, 2022, at the Ritz Theater, 345 13th Avenue NE, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $39.00 - $51.00. Student and educator rush tickets, $15.00, subject to availability, one hour before curtain, two tickets per ID. Members of Actors Equity Association (AEA), the Union of Professional Actors; the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society (SDC); and the Twin Cities Musicians Union- $20 with union member ID card, two tickets per member. For tickets call 612-339-3303 or go to 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 Supervisor: Abbee Warmboe; Costume Supervisor: Amber Brown; Dialect Coach: Keely Wolter; Stage Manager: D. Marie Long; Assistant Stage Manager: Kyla Moloney; Technical Director: Bethany Reinfeld.
Cast: Sasha Andreev, Phinehas Bynum, David Darrow, Nicholas Davis, Benjamin Dutcher, Ben Johnson, Riley McNutt, Rodolfo Nieto, James Ramlet, Andrew Wilkowske, Evan Tyler Wilson.