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REVIEW: All is Calm Retains Its Sweet Potency (Latté Da)

The cast of Theater Latté Da’s All is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914. Photo by Dan Norman.

World War I was hell.  Some of us knew it from reading the book The Guns of August and some of us learned it from watching the movie Wonder Woman with its astoundingly realistic backdrop of World War I trench warfare. Those who actually lived it are no longer with us.

Theater Latté Da succeeds in taking this knowledge to create a memorable moment when the hell was put on pause in its current production of All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914. The performance, created and directed by Peter Rothstein, opens with a stage that is stark with its emptiness and severely bright lighting as the ten ensemble members stand in a militaristic formation.  In a moment of visceral tension, the questions linger as to what really brought about the Christmas Truce of 1914, and what did it mean to the soldiers involved? The tension breaks as the characters excitedly start to speak of the declaration of war.

Peter Rothstein’s demonstrates an incredible example of documentary theatre, with characters speaking in their own words taken from journal entries and letters they wrote. He deftly combines these words with songs of the era. In the early 1900s, songs were a social phenomenon, not simply an entertainment.

Many songs to be sung on important social occasions reside in the consciousness of the soldiers as they experienced each phase of their story: from rumor of war, recruitment, training, shipping off, fighting and mourning the dead. With music direction by Erick Lichte and vocal arrangements by Erick Lichte and Timothy C. Takach, the ensemble rails and regales with stunning excitement and enthusiasm a pastiche of recruitment songs, army songs and military anthems.

Light and shadow are key components in the scenic design of All is Calm, with lighting design by Marcus Dillard and scenic charge by Samantha Johns. Photo by Dan Norman.

By the time of the unofficial Christmas Truce, the soldiers along the Western Front had already fought several horrific battles in which tens of thousands of soldiers were killed. Lighting Designer Marcus Dillard delineates the playing space with areas of light and shadow as the English soldiers slog toward their entrenchment, and clouds of smoke roll over the space a suggesting the lethality of the environment.

Much is left to the imagination of the audience as variously sized boxes for ammo, rations, and other supplies are scattered across the stage to suggest a trenches no-man’s land. The ensemble creates animated clusters of voices moving across the stage to give the impression of an event that spread for miles. The performers seamlessly played soldiers of both sides of the battlefield, with James Ramlet especially poignant as both English and German non-commissioned officers.  Rodolfo Nieto in particularly stood out with his monologue as a French soldier.

The cast of All is Calm. Photo by Dan Norman.

Ironically, the English expressed confusion about their sudden truce and the exquisite choral singing of “Oh, Tannenbaum” and “Stille Nacht” which spread across no-man’s land on Christmas Eve.  Most of the English soldiers did not have realistic expectations of what war would be like.  The German soldiers, to whom the war was just another military excursion of their Prussian generals, seemed to play on the naïveté of the English soldiers, using Christmas as a unique excuse for them all to go AWOL from the war to end all wars.

The temporary truce’s legacy is that the soldiers discovered the enemy were human just like them, with little difference in thinking and feeling. The allied soldiers spend a lot of time expressing how friendly and personable the German’s were in contrast with the propaganda they had been fed about the enemy.

The unspoken fascination with the Christmas Truce is that it was a missed opportunity to end the war quickly.  It could have given leaders cover that a cease fire was not surrender.  However, the political and military leadership were sure victory for their side was in the offing and persisted in the war.

War was a historical mind-set of the European leaders, with the Christmas Truce appeared as an unexpected loophole in an otherwise oppressive and pervasive expectation that war was inevitable. Theater Latté Da’s All is Calm shows how easily and readily these leaders could have chosen peace.

All is Calm plays at the Ritz Theater in Northeast Minneapolis through December 29, 2019.

Dan Reiva