December 19, 2009.By Graydon Royce, Star Tribune.
This story about an extraordinary Christmas in 1914 gets better with age.
The question Thursday night was whether “All is Calm” would hold up in its third year. In 2007, the concert version by Theatre Latte Da and Cantus charmed us in a jewel-box setting. Last year, again, an expanded staging at the Patntages Theatre provided a fresh experience.
This year, except for adding stage snow, Peter Rothstein’s production remains largely the same. And if a classic work is marked by its capacity to stretch and deepen in meaning on repeated viewings, then “all is Calm” seems destined to become timeless. Even without an ornament or shred of red drapery anywhere on its stark set, “All Is Calm” has no peer in the Christmas theatrical sweepstakes – on the terms of celebrating the possibility of peace on Earth, goodwill to all.
“All is Calm” tells of Christmas 1914, when German and Allied troops put down their arms for a day and “In the middle of war, we had ourselves a Merry Christmas.” Rothstein crafted a script from letters and diaries of soldiers and officers on both sides of the line to document the event. Erick Lichte and Timothy Takach then arranged period songs and carols sung by Cantus. It would be a horrible injustice to suggest Cantus provides mere accompaniment. The music is a parallel and absolutely essential method of telling the story.
The Effect of this show, with 12 men (nine singers, three actors) dressed in military black, is that of ritual ceremony – commemorating the men who dared to flirt with a day of peace. Rothstein’s actors have mined the text and settled more comfortably into their characters. John Catron breaks our heart with a recitation from one soldier who lost his buddy and then vows never again to “pal up” with another man. Dave Roberts fills center stage with the proclamation from a young Winston Churchill that if soldiers had their way, there might not be any war. Alan Sorenson, too, ranges with these men in emotional dimension.
Cantus, it must be said, quite literally seizes the audience with its tonal density, astonishing harmonic precision and rhythmic discipline. At on moment, their voices clatter with the cacophony of nationalism before seamlessly modulating into the pure simplicity of Christmas.
So many other instances stand out in this exquisitely sober piece: Gary Ruschman’s rendition of “O Holy Night,” sung in French; the group’s nine-part harmony on the signature line “all is calm” from “Stille Nacht”; Shahzone Shah’s mournful solo in “Will Ye Go to Flanders?”
In case there is any doubt remaining, yes “All is Calm” sustains a third sitting and seems likely to feed out psychic and spiritual space for many years. Well done.