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Sunday, 10 November 2013 21:41

'All is Calm': A Christmas show for all seasons

Written by Dennis Corcoran
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'All is Calm': A Christmas show for all seasons
mustardseedtheatre.com / John Lamb

Yes, Christmas might be the best time to see "All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914," but any time of year is a good time to revisit a moment of such humanity in a troubled world.

The setting of this short, powerful piece is the trenches of World War I.  It is nearing Christmas, 1914.  This long bloody war is still in its infancy, only six months old.  Yet it has already resolved itself to many, many miles of nearly static lines fortified earthen trenches with the warring sides facing each other across a treacherous “no man’s land”.

“All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914” was created in 2007 by Peter Rothstein of Theatre Latté Da and the Cantus Vocal Ensemble of Minneapolis.  It is dubbed an acapella musical for, in fact, the hour-long program consists mostly of choral singing beautifully arranged by Erick Lichte and Timothy C. Takach, all movingly punctuated with text based on letters describing the events of those days.

It recounts the true story of the unofficial truce and subsequent “fraternization” which occurred around and on Christmas Day, 1914, World War I, in the trenches of the Western Front.  Soldiers from both sides began singing carols loudly enough for the other side to hear.  German troops lit candles along their lines and erected a Christmas tree.  Eventually, soldiers from both sides emerged from their trenches, their dismal mud homes, and walked out into the devastation of the “no man’s land” which lay between.  They met, sang, exchanged gifts and souvenirs, played “football” and buried their dead in services attended by soldiers from both sides.  This undeclared, unofficial yet heartfelt truce, the spirit of this common holiday, was not well received, particularly by the British high command which forbade fraternization, all to no avail.  This moment of humanity was not to be repeated.

Mustard Seed Theatre’s production of “All Is Calm” is simple, clean, and moving.  The set by Kyra Bishop is all that is needed.  It hints at trenches, with barbed wire, wooden fences, crates and a sense of the mud and muck which defined the world in which these soldiers lived and where so many died.

The backdrop is, itself, a beautifully executed depiction of the “no man’s land” which separated the lines, often only yards apart.  Little was left alive in this killing ground and, combined with periodic effective use of light, the loneliness and dread of this eerie landscape is brought home.

Costumes by Jane Sullivan were also pointedly simple yet deftly executed.  At first I wanted more of them.  I searched in vain for a clear distinction among the 10 cast members (all male – as is appropriate) with some being English and others German.

I then, needlessly as it turned out, worried that the German side was not going to receive the credit due for having initiated much of this remarkable event.  But while costume distinctions were lacking – although I think I detected some faint hints of difference – the action was handled very effectively through staging.

The acting was quite good but I want to turn my attention to the singing.  After all, this is described as an acapella musical.  And this is where MST’s production shines.  The singing is deep, strong and wide ranging in voice, with arrangements spanning the complex to the surprisingly simple and pure.

There is something alluring in an all male chorus, the tenors, baritones and basses blending, at times, soaring at others ... the absence of the sopranos bringing the entire performance more “down to earth”.   Twenty-three tunes in all are sung, many familiar, some not so.  Most are sung in English, a few in German and one, a beautifully executed solo, in French.

This show is a special treat.  Lighting by Michael Sullivan was appropriate and effective.

There is something deceiving in this production.  It’s apparent simplicity – aside from the vocal arrangements which are decidedly not so simple – masks the challenges and complexities of staging an hour-long program, in a small space which both honors the men and the events of that time while not bogging down into a nearly motionless song-fest (think a choral ensemble standing on risers).

The fact that this complex piece of musical theatre comes off as a beautifully, simply performed tribute to a poignant moment in the horrors of war ... that is due to the artistry of the show’s director, Deanna Jent.

I could say many things – all rather predictable – about Jent’s direction.  Let me simply sum up by saying, “Thank you.”   You told a moving story, faithful to its historical roots, in a way that allowed me to not be distracted by extraneous sights and sounds.

Beautifully done, one and all!

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