Saturday, December 22, 2018

140 (2018-2019): Review: ALL IS CALM: THE CHRISTMAS TRUCE OF 1914 (seen December 22, 2018)

“We’ll Take a Cup of Kindness Yet”

One of a reviewer’s perks is getting not one but two comps to perhaps 90 percent of the shows he or she covers. Seeing a show with a companion and then being able to share reactions to it is a major bonus, even when you and your plus-one disagree. But, as in my case, offering five or six shows a week to a small group of friends can sometimes create scheduling problems and mistakes, on both sides.

Mike McGowan, David Darrow, Sasha Andreev, James Ramlet, Evan Tyler Wilson, Benjamin Dutcher, Tom McNichols, Rodolfo Nieto, and Riley McNutt. Photo: Dan Norman.
This is less significant when shows are second- or third-rate (no one hates missing a turkey) but you never want to screw up when something is as memorable as All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914, a choral musical cum history lesson at the Sheen Center’s Loreto Theater.
Rodolfo Nieto. Photo: Dan Norman.
Without going into the logistical details—more complex than you might imagine—screw up there was with the result that the seat next to me remained empty for what I was surprised to discover was, of its type, one of the most special of the well over 200 shows I’ve covered this year.
Sasha Andreev and company. Photo: Dan Norman.
All Is Calm is a sort of jukebox musical, if you will, combining well over 30 songs, unfamiliar and familiar, classic and (at one time) popular, with snatches from letters, documents, and poetry to commemorate an event symbolizing a rare moment of shared humanity under the dire circumstances of war. That was when, in December 1914, British and German soldiers fighting in the trenches of France’s No Man’s Land temporarily put down their arms to join arms for a Christmas celebration, including the singing of Christmas songs.
Tom McNichols and company. Photo: Dan Norman.
Historians, as clearly explained on this site, question the accuracy of the legends that have sprung up about this remarkable fraternization between what were then mortal enemies. All Is Calm itself serves more to romanticize the story of the truce than to question its veracity. Nonetheless, many similar events actually occurred, providing the basis for this exceptionally well-done presentation.
David Darrow. Photo: Dan Norman.
As this Wikipedia article demonstrates, there have been numerous references to the Christmas truce in popular culture, one being to a 2005 French film called Joyeux Noël I saw not long ago as a Netflix rental. The Wikipedia piece, however, somehow neglects a British, one-man play of 2013 called Our Friends, the Enemy that I reviewed when it played here in 2015. Both pale before the emotional and aesthetic power of All Is Calm. 
Company of All Is Calm. Photo: Dan Norman.

I’ll let the links I’ve provided inform those who are interested in learning about the fascinating historical details. Here let me note simply that All Is Calm was created by Peter Rothstein in 2007 and premiered under his direction at Minneapolis’s Pantages Theater, where it subsequently was produced each December as a Theater Latté Da Production.
Benjamin Dutcher and company. Photo: Dan Norman.
It’s divided into seven sections called “Prologue,” “The Optimistic Departure,” “The Grim Reality,” “Christmas,” “The Truce,” “The Return to Battle,” and “Epilogue.” Ten first-rate actor-singers, dressed in an assortment of uniforms (designed by Trevor Bowen) representing different British branches are involved. These uniforms, when worn with those pointy Bosch helmets, also serve for the Germans. The company gives remarkably harmonious voice to song after song, with Erick Lichte and Timothy C. Takach’s exquisite arrangements performed under Lichte’s musical direction. They also deliver their spoken lines with truth and theatrical force.
Company of All Is Calm. Photo: Dan Norman.
Until you hear several actors speaking in American accents at the end, you’d be hard pressed not to believe this is a British company, each performer using one or another authentic-sounding accent, including Scottish, with German thrown in when needed. The narrative is mainly in the form of quotes recited as such from contemporary writings, most of them concluded by the speaker announcing his rank, company, and name. Now and then a familiar name associated with World War I is heard, like Siegfried Sassoon or Wilfred Owen, not to mention Winston Churchill.
Evan Tyler Wilson and company. Photo: Dan Norman,
There are no continuing “characters,” only individuals who fade in and out to say their lines and then join the chorus before appearing as someone else. Music is almost continuous, with choral background singing or humming behind the speeches. The set is merely an arrangement of wooden boxes, allowing Rothstein to move his ensemble about in gorgeously arranged tableaux, given exceptionally beautiful chiaroscuro lighting by Marcus Dillard.
Company of All Is Calm. Photo: Dan Norman.
You can, of course, expect to hear old-time ditties like “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” and “Pack Up Your Troubles” along with seasonal favorites like “Silent Night” (also sung in German) and “Auld Lang Syne” on the English side and “O Tannenbaum” on the German. There are many songs not as well known but all make wonderful, often beautiful, listening, especially as warbled by this gorgeously rich blend of voices, each of which gets solo opportunities. Those that stand out in particular are the fulsome basses of Tom McNichols and James Ramlet and the soaring tenor of Evan Tyler Wilson.
Company of All Is Calm. Photo: Dan Norman.
All Is Calm may not be an accurate work of historical drama but, in around 70 minutes, it expresses how extraordinary it was for anything like such truces to have occurred. It does so in such a theatrically exquisite way that I hope to see it again if it should ever return to New York. And, hopefully, with a plus-one!


Sheen Center/Loreto Theater
18 Bleecker St., NYC
Through December 30