Next Stop, Broadway? The Brilliant ‘Downstairs’ and ‘All Is Calm’

By TIM TEEMAN, The Daily Beast

November 18, 2018

What a lovely space the Sheen Center For Thought & Culture’s Loreto Theater on Bleecker Street is: stately, warm, and welcoming. Appositely, the exquisitely performed All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914 is reaching out intimately and powerfully to audiences there.

Not all the seats were occupied at the performance this critic attended, and every seat should be. And, Broadway producers note: this 75-minute show would flourish on a bigger stage too.

The story is well-known: in the first year of World War One, hostilities along extensive sections of the Western Front late on Christmas Eve and into Christmas Day, 1914, ceased. English and German soldiers emerged from their respective trenches to cross ‘No man’s land’ and meet one another. For these few precious hours, the sound of gunfire ceased. Songs were sung, gifts exchanged, and—although this has been disputed—games of football played.

 Photo by Dan Norman

Photo by Dan Norman

All Is Calm, written and directed by Peter Rothstein, with vocal arrangements by Erick Lichte and Timothy C. Takach, and music direction by Lichte, takes an intelligently clear approach to this complex material. All Is Calm had its world premiere on Minnesota Public Radio in 2007, since when the award-winning show has been broadcast on five continents. As a stage show, it has toured the United States for ten seasons.

On a simple and stark black stage, with occasional jets of theatrical smoke to evoke the battlefield, the play intersperses popular songs sung by soldiers of the time with actors reading the memories and letters home of real soldiers and famous poets of the era, like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon.

This fantastic company of actors—Sasha Andreev, David Darrow, Benjamin Dutcher, Ben Johnson, Mike McGowan, Tom McNichols, Riley McNutt, Rodolfo Nieto, James Ramlet, and Evan Tyler Wilson—sing beautifully in harmony and a capella.

Versatile of accent, they initially play British soldiers of all classes and kinds heading off to war, with jokes and joshing and brightly optimistic songs like ‘Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit-Bag, and Smile, Smile, Smile.’ But reaching the front means coming into contact with the grinding, awful reality of trench warfare, including getting acquainted with large rats that are far too tame and unafraid of humans.

Death is soon all around the men, as is cold, sadness, and isolation. And then there is that night itself, which is beautifully lit on stage by Marcus Dilliard, with softly falling snow and a waxy moon.

In 1914 that night began with the sight of candles and lights hung above the German trenches. The English and German versions of 'Silent Night' and other songs were sung into the frigid air. And then the soldiers rose to meet one another, trusting, correctly, that neither side would abuse this tender bond of peace, however temporary it would prove to be.

“Rum is opened, cigarettes exchanged, letters from home read. The men wonder how this can happen, how they can be so close, and be expected to kill each another.”

Piercing memories of fraternal association are recalled as the cast play soldiers from both sides. We see the moments where each side allowed the other to bury behind their lines those whose bodies lay in No Man’s Land and then those games of football. Rum is opened, cigarettes exchanged, letters from home read. The men wonder how this can happen, how they can be so close, and be expected to kill each another.

Of course, the play has a tragic ending we know too well; the Christmas truce was short-lived. The men were ordered back to war. We hear of the moment where a German soldier stood on the top of his trench, probably still thinking the truce was still extant. He was shot. The fighting began again. Over 16 million people died during World War One.

One character wonders if the truce, had it held, could have led the men away from the trenches, and ended the war. (Probably not. The various countries’ leaders would not have countenanced such mass desertion.) The superb All Is Calm leaves us mulling the terrible futility and cost of war, while crystallizing a moment of beautiful humanity.

All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914 is at the Sheen Center for Thought & Culture, New York City, until Dec. 30.