December 18, 2011.By Madeline Salmon, TC Daily Planet.
On December 24, 1914, a German soldier emerged from the trenches in Ypres, Belgium lighting candles and singing "Stille Nacht." The British troops on the other side chose not to shoot him. Instead, soldiers from both sides stepped into No Man's Land and enemies started "shaking hands like a couple of long lost school chums," in the words of one British sergeant. So began the Christmas truce of the first year of World War I, the event celebrated in Peter Rothstein's All Is Calm.
The program -- a collaboration between Theater Latte Da, Hennepin Theatre Trust, and the male ensemble Cantus, who provide the stunning and almost ceaseless vocals -- is not quite a play, but more like a vocal retelling of history. The musical pieces, arranged by Erick Lichte and Timothy C. Takach, range from folk songs to Christmas carols to drinking jigs. The singers do some acting, though most of the speaking (and there is quite a bit) is done by three actors who recite letters and other texts written by the men who experienced the truce. The words of those soldiers, beautifully arranged by Rothstein, speak more truth than any original script ever could.
The show looks lovely as well, with a set and costumes highlighted by nothing but their simplicity and a marvelous use of fog machines to set the tone. And its setting in the Pantages Theatre (built during World War I in 1916) couldn't be more ideal.
At 75 minutes, the program doesn't do much more than recount that Christmas Eve in 1914, and it does so with artistry and elegance. But it does take the time to touch on the horrors surrounding this night of peace, an event that was never repeated. Reflecting on the meaning of Christmas in the midst of war, one German soldier asks, "Poor little God of love, how could you have ever loved mankind?"
With nine million soldiers dead by the end of World War I, that question lingers. All Is Calm avoids the mistake of guiding us toward an easy answer. It celebrates the joy felt by the men who transformed No Man's Land into "Every Man's Land," but it also mourns the strife that forced those same men back down into the trenches.
Because of the show's sheer beauty we are left with this imperfect, but not all together unsatisfactory, answer to the soldier's question. The story of the Christmas truce teaches us that at our best we are capable of laying down our guns and lifting our voices as one.