December 15, 2011.By Sophie Kerman, Aisle Say Twin Cities.
In Cantus/Theater Latté Da/Hennepin Theatre Trust's meditative and moving production of All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914, more is happening beneath the surface than initially meets the eye. Centered around the events of Christmas 1914, in which British, German and French troops famously declared a temporary truce, All Is Calm tells the story of this short-term peace through the music that may have inspired it. (For more about the play's development process and director Peter Rothstein's artistic choices, see here.) Carols and patriotic songs from both sides of the trenches are woven together with quotations from real WWI soldiers, including celebrated poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. The resulting tapestry is less an anti-war piece -- or even a Christmas play -- than a reflection on the power of art to cross ideological and territorial lines.
The power behind the production comes from a combination of several elements. First, Rothstein's simple staging allows the audience to focus on the text being sung and spoken. Rothstein writes that he imagined the piece as a radio drama, since that would have been the medium a World War I soldier would have best related to. Although modern audiences are less familiar with the format, in this case it works well: the movements of the twelve men on stage direct our attention to the content through gracefully choreographed patterns of movement and stillness.
The readings by actors Matt Rein, David Roberts and Alan Sorenson are equally well-balanced. The three men do not speak to each other, but their separate monologues seem to flow naturally from the progression of the music and the narrative. The pace of the action, however, comes not from the actors but from the nine singers of Cantus, an all-male vocal group. Cantus is the kind of musical ensemble who, to be blunt, could make sorting the recycling sound beautiful; the vocalists blend so fluidly that even their vibrato seems synchronized. Even so, they seem to infuse this performance with all their heart and emotion, particularly when it comes to the moments of nostalgia for home.
The men on stage build the perfect combination of voices to argue for music's ability to bridge linguistic gaps and create solidarity, first in recruiting soldiers to war and then in uniting two opposing sides. If only we could learn to harmonize with one another, the play suggests, we would realize just how much humanity we all share.
In creating this space to meditate on war, however, the play raises some interesting questions for today's political entanglements. The "Christmas spirit"- staged here as the driving force behind this brief ceasefire - was something shared across both sides of the World War I hostilities; German troops could sing "Stille Nacht" in unison with their English foes' "Silent Night." The seemingly simple gesture of a shared holiday tradition does not translate as easily in the modern-day Middle East, when an invitation to sing carols around a Christmas tree could be read as insensitive - or at worst, culturally imperialistic.
In re-creating of a moment of peace and unity that miraculously emerged in the midst of World War I, All Is Calm expresses the wish that our soldiers could all just lay down their arms and recognize that their common longings for home and loved ones ultimately matter more than the war they optimistically enlisted to fight. But a lot has changed in the last hundred years, and the enemies we are fighting no longer subscribe to a shared set of religious or cultural beliefs. Does All Is Calm's unifying vision extend to those who do not share the same sentiments around Christmas? What songs would the soldiers in Afghanistan have to sing to create their own ceasefire?
All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914 by Peter Rothstein. At Pantages Theatre, 710 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis, MN 55403. December 15-18, 2011. Tickets $15-35 from 800-982-2787 or online at HennepinTheatreTrust.org.