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All Is Calm


Photo credit Dan Norman

                                 By Jeanne and Edward Lieberman

Forget the singing Santa’s and athletic elves, this simple direct-to-the-heart production will eclipse any other Christmas show and should be a perennial for Christmas, Easter and/or anytime your faith in humanity needs healing.

ALL is Calm, as presented by the Theater Latte Da at the Sheen Center, is made all the more poignant because this is the story of a real event, told through letters written by its participants.

It is the story of the “Christmas Truce” that occurred in 1914 between the soldiers on the front lines, in direct contravention of the orders of their superior officers. On Christmas Eve, some German soldiers lit a Christmas tree, emerged from their trench singing “Stille Nacht” and approached the Allied lines across no-man’s-land, calling out “Merry Christmas” in their enemies’ native tongues. At first, the Allied soldiers feared it was a trick, but seeing the Germans unarmed they climbed out of their trenches and shook hands with the enemy soldiers. The men exchanged presents of cigarettes, plum puddings and even some whiskey (courtesy, no doubt, of the Scottish Brigade). They sang carols and songs, tried on each other’s helmets, exchanged stories of themselves and their families, and even played a good-natured game of soccer. Before it ended, the soldiers agreed to use the short-lived ceasefire for a more somber task: the retrieval of the bodies of fellow combatants who had fallen within the no-man’s land between the lines. One soldier recounted that “Christmas, the celebration of Love, managed to bring mortal enemies together as our friends for a time.” Another wrote: “I shall never forget it, it was one of the highlights of my life.” 

What makes the story more touching is the fact that it took place during the first year of the War, when passions on both sides would have been at their highest, and without any authorization by the generals or superior officers on either side. In fact, on December 7, 1914, Pope Benedict XV had suggested a temporary cease fire for the celebration of Christmas. Although the general staffs refused, on Christmas Day the soldiers in the trenches declared their own unofficial truce. It is interesting to note that the War lasted three more years and the Truce was not repeated, no doubt because soldiers were specifically warned by their superiors that any fraternization with enemy soldiers would be met with strict discipline. It served as heartening proof, however brief, that beneath the brutal clash of weapons, the soldiers’ essential humanity endured, if only for one day. As one soldier noted, “For one day, no man’s land became everyman’s land.”

Peter Rothstein conceived All Is Calm in 2007 as a radio musical drama (it has been performed on NPR), using only music and text. The story is told in the documentary style made famous by Ken Burns, with the actors reciting letters, journals, war documents, even poetry from soldiers who served in the trenches on the front lines in France, after which they identify the soldier by name, rank and battalion. Interspersed is the beautiful music, consisting of a capella renditions of trench songs, patriotic and sentimental tunes, as well as Christmas music and carols popular at the time, in the languages of the participants.

The cast of ten singers constantly changed accents as they recited the aforementioned texts from soldiers of different sides and regions. Musical Director and Arranger Erick Lichte, together with co-Arranger Timothy Takach are responsible for blending the musical numbers into a coherent whole.

One cannot overstate the beauty of the male chorus, a glorious assemblage of voices superbly blended in sophisticated arrangements of what were previously considered simple Christmas carols and popular songs of the era, now worthy of their own concert evening.  

That many of the group have returned year after year to join the show is reflected in their seemingly effortless transitions from song to song offering testament to the dedication to its message and the beauty of its delivery. Their belief in the material is evident in the depth and sensitivity which they bring to the stage. 

It is through song that the story is told. And the music traverses the arc from the naďve exhilaration of those enlisting in what was believed to be a short skirmish: “Come on and Join”, “God Save the King”; to grim reality “I Want to go Home” “When this bloody war is over”, “Rain, rain, Rain”, “Deutschland, Deutschland Uber Ales”.  

And then to the focus of the musical: the Christmas songs that united the enemy camps in their similar motivation: among them “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”, “Di Wacht am Rhein” and that international chestnut “O Tannenbaum”.  

Finally the Truce songs that enticed the soldiers out of their trenches: “Stille Nacht”, “Angels We Ave Heard on High”. A tenor from the Paris Opera in the French army pierces the atmosphere with “O Holy Night”. 


David Darrow
 

To the incredibly moving rendition of “Auld Lang Syne” as the soldiers reluctantly retreated to their trenches, truce over, creating an the experience that will remain with audience members for a long time after they leave the theater.  

What is ingenious is that not a shot is fired nor a bomb dropped – the violence is alluded to without sound effects. But the drama is there nevertheless as directed with a stunning simplicity by Peter Rothstein that belies the strength behind the message.

Trevor Bowen clothes the actor/singers in nondescript black uniforms that serve as uniforms for both sides (except for the famous pointed helmets worn by the German soldiers, and kilts worn by those from Scotland), 


James Ramlet
 

One exception is the raincoat worn by cast member James Ramlet, who is a dead ringer for Winston Churchill and changes character merely by smoking his cigar. 

Marcus Dilliard’s lighting enables the actors to “switch sides” unobtrusively as well as creating moods from jubilation in the beginning to the ultimate desolation.

 

 

Once in a very rare a while do you discover an experience that conveys the true meaning of Christmas. Its anti war message is invaluable. This beautiful story will leave its distinct imprint from the stage to your heart and remain there long after you leave the theater.

All Is Calm deserves to take its place as one of the classic Christmas productions. 

All Is Calm will continue at the Loreto Theater, Sheen Center, 18 Bleecker Street, through December 30, 2018.

Tickets are available by visiting www.alliscalm.org.