A separate peace

December 17, 2011.By Matt McGeachy, Minnesota Playlist.

On December 15, 2011, the United States formally ended its military mission in Iraq, marking the end of eight years of war that left thousands of troops dead, hundreds of thousands civilians dead or wounded, and many more cynical and disheartened citizens both here and abroad. For many of us it was a senseless and disheartening war, of dubious legality, fed by lies and deceit from our elected officials, reminding us (as if we needed any more reminding) that the machinations of history happen without our consent and outside our control. So Thursday was not quite a cause for celebration as it was a sobering reminder of what havoc men (and women) blinded by power can wreck. It was in this frame of mind that I saw opening night of All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914 at the Pantages Theatre in Minneapolis, about another senseless and disheartening war where the small people -- people like you and me -- were excluded from the machinations of history except for on one starry, snowy night: Christmas Eve, 1914.

In the midst of yet more war, in the spirit of the many soldiers in the trenches of the First World War, Cantus and Theatre Latte Da have created a show of remarkable beauty, poise, and dignity that escapes neither into sentimentality, despite the Christmas music fare, nor tragedy, despite the dark subject matter. The result is an evening of beautiful music and fine stagecraft that has deservedly become part of the Twin Cities' holiday show traditions.

Originally conceived, according to the program notes, as a radio drama, the evening begins with the men of Cantus singing a prelude medley of traditional English carols, arranged by Ralph Vaughan Williams. The medley includes some well-known carols, such as "God Rest You Merry Gentlemen" as well as lesser-known songs with a stronger English flavor, such as a beautiful rendition of the "Coventry Carol" (now perhaps well-known to Twin Cities audiences from its prominent feature in the Guthrie's new Christmas Carol). The prelude concludes and the men of Cantus take formation on risers upstage as fog rolls in and three actors (Matt Rein, David Roberts, and Alan Sorenson) enter with wooden crates. These three actors, with help from the choir, will play nearly 30 different historical characters from both sides of the First World War.

Author and director Peter Rothstein opts to let these historical characters speak for themselves, using snippets of letters and other material to convey the evolving sentiment toward a war that politicians hoped would "be over by Christmas" but in the end cost over 8 million lives and countless million more permanent disabilities. Beginning with the youthful excitement of young men heading off to war and accompanied by such optimistic songs as Irving Berlin's "Come on and Join" and the anthem "God Save the King," eventually the grim reality of war sets in, and songs such as "I Want to Go Home" by Lt. Gitz Rice perfectly capture the fading excitement and the realization that one might die in the trenches, far away from all one had known.

When, in 1914, Pope Benedict XV proposed a Christmas truce, the Allied commanders arrogantly rejected it. But, bravely and spontaneously, the men on both sides of the trenches started singing carols, and then celebrated with each other in the No Man's Land between the battle lines. Cantus sings such classics as "0 Tannenbaum" and "Silent Night" in beautiful cappella arrangements, and for a brief moment on the battlefield, ordinary men achieved what their leaders and even the Pope could not: a reprieve from fighting. A Christmas truce.

The peace did not last through the night. On orders from commanders, the troops withdrew back to their trenches and began shooting and shelling the very men that only an hour before had been their companions in celebration; once again fighting for hollow notions of national glory and the boundless arrogance of generations of inbred monarchs.

Marcus Dilliard's lighting design provides maximum theatricality with minimal set, and the simple black outfits from costume designer Christine Richardson perfectly capture the idea that we are visualizing a radio drama. This is a true ensemble show, and each performer fully carried his weight. But greatest credit must go to Rothstein and musical arrangers Erick Lichte and Timothy C. Takach, whose music and story seamlessly intertwined.

Perhaps because the Frist World War is a lesser part of American mythology, or perhaps because each character came and went so quickly, I found myself connecting to this production more on an intellectual level than an emotional level. Nevertheless, when one of the soldiers mused on what the world would have been like had the whole armies refused to fight, I couldn't help but reflect on the hundreds of thousands dead from our current wars and wonder, what if ... ?

This Christmas, I hope you'll join me in enjoying the beautiful show All Is Calm, and in reminding ourselves to always, always ask, what if we choose peace?

Cantus, Theater Latte Da, and Hennepin Theatre Trust present All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914 Written and directed by Peter Rothstein Musical arrangements by Erick Lichte and Timothy C. Takach At the Pantages Theatre until December 18 710 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis