Our Friends the Enemy

 

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By: Jordan Cohen

 

A different kind of Christmas tale.

 

‘Tis the season for Christmas plays, Christmas concerts, Christmas ballets, Christmas burlesques, Christmas… well, everything. Everywhere audiences turn, a cheery Christmas story is told and Christmas tunes are sung. For those looking for a Christmas tale of a different type, head over to the Lion Theatre where Alex Gwyther’s richly atmospheric and consummately performed one-man show, Our Friends the Enemy, is playing through December 20th. The play premiered two years ago in London and went on to receive several more successful productions, including two UK tours, and is now receiving its US premiere.

 

With nimble direction by Tom O’Brien, Our Friends the Enemy recounts the experiences of several British and German World War I soldiers on the Western Front before, during, and right after the Christmas Truce of 1914. In his program note, Gwyther explains that while several German and British regiments participated in the temporary truce, it was not a coordinated effort. Gwyther’s play hops between German and British soldiers at various locations going about their daily routine in the trenches, and climaxes on that fateful Christmas day. Gwyther paints an appropriately bleak picture of the difficulty and uncertainty associated with life on the Front, but also makes sure shades of humor and moments of levity cut through the darkness at necessary moments.

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The play’s mainly lighthearted culmination is gratifying to watch and well earned – Gwyther conveys the intensely palpable relief of the soldiers, come Christmas day, when both sides put down their arms and exchanged cigarettes, stories, and in some cases home addresses to meet up after the war ended. Some regiments played each other in soccer – Germans vs. Brits – others put on sketches where, side-by-side, soldiers lampooned each other’s accents and customs to a “unified thunder of applause.” As Gwyther recounts, it was a time when “boys could go back to being boys,” even for just a brief, sweet moment.

 

But just as Gwyther superbly manages to undercut the darkness with cheer, he also provides blunt reminders that the truce is merely a fleeting intermission for the main event. After a group of soldiers fails to catch a hare they intended to make their Christmas dinner, the hare scurries off and forages for food “next to the pale blue body of a German corpse.” Indeed, all good things must come to an end, and the play’s denouement is a chilling reminder of this reality.

 

Gwyther narrates these stories as James, a British soldier, who at rise is onstage cleaning his rifle and writing in a journal. With subtle changes to his voice and posture, Gwyther slips in and out of the various characters with immense skill, bringing to life each character with clarity and specificity. His performance is always energetic and his vocal delivery is lithe, communicating the beautiful lyricism embedded in many of the play’s lines.

 

I am less enthusiastic about the technical elements of the play. Because Gwyther’s performance and the script is so strong, I felt the production could do without the abundance of quick lighting changes that punctuated several of the play’s moments (lighting design by David Goldstein). On the other hand, the lighting did often contribute to the desolate atmosphere at the Front and, contrastingly, to the jubilant mood of Christmas day. The sound design and music composition, provided by David Gregory and Darren Clark, respectively, added nicely to moments of tension and complemented events in the story without being distracting. The simple set design of war-torn earth and a wooden military trunk served the story and Gwyther’s performance perfectly.

 

There are two big lessons to learn from Our Friends the Enemy. One: war is hell. Two: even in the darkest of times, putting aside differences and embracing others can be rejuvenating. Especially in light of recent global events, these are two great lessons to always bear in mind.

Photos: Pamela Raith

Our Friends the Enemy is playing at The Lion Theatre on Theatre Row (410 W. 42nd St., between 9th and 10th Aves.) through Dec. 20th.

For tickets, visit: https://www.telecharge.com/Off-Broadway/Our-Friends-The-Enemy-The-1914-Christmas-Truce

Or purchase by phone at 212-239-6200 or 800-432-7250.

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