By Marilyn Lester
All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914 is the kind of work that makes you want to shout its greatness from the rooftops. It’s a lean and spare work told as a folk opera of sorts, through the words and songs of those who were there on the front lines and in the trenches. It’s the studied minimalism of All Is Calm that gives it its power, driving an emotional tempest that won’t soon be forgotten.
Anyone who’s been through “The Trench Experience” at London’ Imperial War Museum will instantly understand the claustrophobic and horrific conditions of the trenches. This mood is captured in the atmospheric lighting (incisively created and executed by Marcus Dillard) and the black box staging within the proscenium that utilizes only a modicum of props to literally set the stage. It’s the intense focus on the actors themselves–in constant motion and constant song–that vividly brings to life the humanity of the men portrayed. The opening is a thrilling, riveting attention grabber. Out of a dark, smoky haze, a single voice–a single man–sings “Will Ye Go to Flanders?” Slowly, other voices and other men in a rising chorus join him. The same staging in reverse bookends the piece, the ghosts of the past thus emerging from and returning to the mists of time.
As the story unfolds over a compact 75 minute run time, visionary writer Peter Rothstein, who also directed, reveals a work of visual poetry. The ensemble engages in a constant flow of activity, an exquisite choreography in which no movement is without meaning, no gesture wasted. The cast, Sasha Andreev, David Darrow, Benjamin Dutcher Ben Johnson, Mike McGowan, Tom McNichols, Riley McNutt Rodolfo Nieto, James Ramlet and Evan Tyler Wilson comprise a singular, well-oiled machine, their acting uniformly versatile and compelling. But it is their vocal prowess that’s electrifying. Every voice is a musical instrument which taken together reaches symphonic proportions. Vocal Arrangements by Erick Lichte (Music Director) and Timothy C. Takach consistently score big on the scale of awesomeness.
The Great War began with high hopes and a great deal of patriotic flag waving, captured in the first segment, “The Optimistic Departure.” Everyone was sure the war would be over by Christmas. The men were disabused of that notion fairly soon (“The Grim Reality”). The centerpiece of All Is Calm, “The Truce” smartly depicts the men exchanging gifts, singing songs, playing football (soccer) and most poignantly, burying the dead who’ve long lain under the snow cover in No Man’s Land. What we’ve probably known all along now becomes clarion. At the core of their humanity “Fritz” and Tommy” are not so different after all. The German novelist, Eric Maria Remarque, who fought on the Western Front and who was among the first to recognize PTSD, wrote of this theme in his great work “All Quiet on the Western Front.” Those who create war control it from a distance. It’s the common man who’s compelled to fight it. Left to his own devices, he might just lay down his arms, shake his brother’s hand and go home–a “what if” we’re left to contemplate as “The Last Post” fades away.
Credits for All is Calm include costume design by Trevor Brown, sound design by Nicholas Tranby, and stage management by Larry Smiglewski. All Is Calm is a production of Theater Latté Da, originally staged in 2007 and produced since on tour and at the Theater Latté Da in Minneapolis, MN.
All Is Calm runs through December 30th. For further information and tickets, call 212-925-2812 or click here.
Photos: Dan Norman
Presented by Laura Little Theatricals and Theater Latté Da Sheen Center for Thought & Culture, Loreto Theater, 18 Bleecker Street, New York