‘Calm’ remains a holiday balm.

December 19, 2009.By Graydon Royce, Star Tribune.

Theatre Review

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.

All is Calm.

December 9, 2009.By Amy C. Rea, WCCO-TV.

How long does it take to establish a holiday classic? This year, the Guthrie Theater celebrates 35 years of A Christmas Carol, while the Minnesota Dance Theater brings Loyce Houlton’s Nutcracker Fantasy back for its 45th year. Clearly these groups have found performances that resonate with and are beloved by local audiences.

But this year also marks the third year that another production is being stage dthat is winning acclaim and attention during the holiday season: All is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914.

“I don’t think anyone ever sets out to write a holiday classic,” said playwright Peter Rothestein, laughing, when I spoke with him last week. But he may have just done that, intentionally or not.

“I hope it has a big life – it deserves to be part of our collective history.”

The Christmas truce of 1914 is a rarely discussed incident during the first year of World War I. Opposing forces along the Western Front voluntarily set aside their weapons and battles and, literally and figuratively, reached out a hand of support to their enemies. The soldiers sang together, shared treats like rum, tobacco and chocolate; they even helped  each other bury their dead and exchanged photos of loved ones back home. On their own, perhaps the war would have eneded right there, but orders from above drove them back tor their separate sides of the trench, and the war continued.

Rothstein use considerable source materials from letters, war documents, memoirs and even gravestones to create All is Calm, which is performed by the Cantus Ensemble. A wide variety of music is performed, from traditional Christmas carols to war songs and popular music of the period.

Rothstein noted that although he’d studied WWI in school, the Christmas truce was never mentioned. Nor, he said, did many Americans know about it when it happened.

“That was when the propaganda machine started working so strongly,” he pointed out. “All communications were censored. They couldn’t have the soldiers sending home stories of sharing Christmas together with the enemy.”

He went on to point out that much beyond the 1914 truce was censored, including the fact that more men were dying from conditions in the trenches than from actual warfare.

After learning about the truce, Rothstein spent several years researching and developing the project, including two trips to Europe, traveling through France, England, and Belgium.

“You can still see the trenches from the air,” he said. “The extended trench warfare left its mark on the land.”

Part of his research took him to the In Flanders Field Museum, which is different than other war museums in that it focuses less on the glories of war and strives more to put a human face on war instead. What he learned during his research was heartbreaking; the stories of these young soldiers – some only 14 or 15 years old – with feet rotting in the trenches, finally reaching the truce, only to be ordered back into war by superior officers not in the trenches. In fact, lat a British soldier noted, “I regret that it was one of ours that broke the trust.”

“The roadblock for the play was that its theme was the lack of drama, and drama is usually what’s required,” Rothstein said. “It needed a nontraditional form.” When he came up with the idea of creating a radio play, he knew he’d found his medium. Radio was the primary form of communication in 1914, and music was a common language. When he had the opportunity to hear Cantus perform, he realized he’d found the right group to carry out his message.

It’s a message that is gaining ground with audiences, even if its subject matter is not the usual cheery holiday fare.

“It’s poignant and profound,” Rothstein said, “but its powerful and uplifting. Peace becomes such a cliché this time of year – everyone wishing everyone ‘happy holidays’ – but this wakes us up.”

The year, All is Calm started the season with a brief tour in the western and southern US before returning to Minneapolis. As for future tours, Rothstein noted that he’d really like to bring the production to the rest of the country, but the difficulty is in the short holiday production season (basically Thanksgiving to Christmas) and the strong ties with Cantus.

“We'd have to add another company, but it’s a challenge to reach the exceptional level of Cantus,” Rothstein said.

Tickets may still be available through Ticketmaster for the Dec. 17-20 performances at the Pantages Theater. The show, which appropriately enough has been broadcast on MPR, is also archived on the American Public Media site, or you can purchase an original cast recording here.

Stages Full of Wonder.

December 2009.By Where Twin Cities.

The Hennepin Theatre District gives a festive salute to the season all month long and across its stages. At the Hennepin Stages. Twin Cities native Phil Olson pays homage to his home state with his hilarious parody of Charles Dickens’ classic holiday tale, A Don’t Hug Me Christmas Carol (continuing). At the Pantages, the true story of a wartime holiday miracle comes to life in All Is Calm – The Christmas Truce of 1914 (Dec. 17-20). Meanwhile, at the State Theatre, there’s the holiday music of Big Bad Voodoo Daddy (Dec. 5), Kenny G (Dec. 6) and more (see listings, p. 35). Hennepin Stages, 824 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis, 612-673-0404, www.adonthugmechristmascarol.com; State Theatre, 805 Hennepin Avenue & Pantages Theatre, 710 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis, 800-982-2787, www.hennepintheatredistrict.org.

Minneapolis/St. Paul Spotlight: December 2009 – Christmas Time is Here

November 30, 2009.By Zachary Stewart, Theater Mania.

Hennepin Theatre Trust and Theater Latte Da team up this December for what is quickly becoming a Minneapolis Holiday Tradition, All is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914  (December 17 - 20). Now in its third year, the show tells the story of the Christmas of 1914, when German and Allied soldiers on the western front of World War I laid down their weapons and met with each other in No Man's Land (the thin strip of land between the trenches) to sing carols over their meager rations of food and drink. The male vocal ensemble Cantus provides a cappella accompaniment to this unique theatrical event featuring dramatic readings of first-hand accounts of this real-life Christmas Miracle.

The national tour of In the Heights  swings into the Orpheum (December 1 - 6). Set in Manhattan's Washington Heights neighborhood, the show is the winner of the 2008 Tony Award for Best Musical. Green T Productions presents an original stage adaptation of Akira Kurosawa's acclaimed 1950 filmRashomon with Tales of Rashomon  (Mixed Blood Theater, December 17 - January 30). Based on the short stories of Ryunosuke Akutagawa, this existential murder-mystery is set in 12th Century Kyoto.

The Guthrie hosts two one-night-only events this month: First, Kevin Kling returns with his hilarious one-man show about Christmas in the Midwest, Tales From the Charred Underbelly of the Yule Log (December 7). Then, Sounds of Blackness presents The Night Before Christmas - A Musical Fantasy (December 21), a modern, hip-hop infused adaptation of the classic Christmas poem.

Penumbra Theatre brings back their annual holiday production, Black Nativity  (December 3 - 27). Constantly in flux, this year's version has been subtitled A Season for Change, and features new songs like "The Soulful Noel" and "Boogie Woogie Santa Claus." John Munger, artistic director of the Third Rabbit Dance Ensemble, presents his one-man version of The NutcrackerNutbuster!! The Ballet  at Bryant Lake Bowl (December 9 - 23). In Munger's adaptation, The Nutcracker is a psychotic day fantasy in the mind of Uncle Drosselmeyer. Also at Bryant Lake Bowl is Janelle Ranek's one-woman showLetters to Santa...Postage Due!  (November 29 - December 19).

Youth Performance Company gets in the holiday spirit with their production of The Elves and the Shoemaker  (Howard Conn Fine Arts Center, December 3 - 20), a Grimm fairytale about a pouty Princess who threatens to cancel Christmas unless someone can make her laugh. Families will also enjoy Disney's Beauty and the Beast  at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts (December 15 - January 3). With all of the classic songs from the Academy Award-winning film, plus a few more, this stage spectacle is an excellent holiday gift for audiences young and old.