All is right with All Is Calm

by GRAYDON ROYCE, Star Tribune

December, 2008

The joy of "Peace on Earth" rarely has seemed so real as it does in this sweet story of a Christmas Day when enemies embraced each other.

The premiere of All Is Calm last Christmas season took place on a small stage in a church auditorium crammed with folding chairs. The intimacy heightened a poignant tale of enemies celebrating a one-day truce at Christmas, 1914, on fields rimed with blood and snow. So successful was the show that Theatre Latté Da and the vocal group Cantus moved into the Pantages Theatre in Minneapolis this year.

While nothing matches the sweet charm of discovery, the show holds up extraordinarily well -- and in some respects is stronger. Cantus' harmonies sound wonderfully full, and director Peter Rothstein has added more staging. The actors no longer read from music stands, and they integrate with the singers in action. Stage fog and a lighting scheme by Marcus Dilliard capture shadow, glare and the frosty atmospherics of a starry night.

This richer dimension fills out the psychic space All Is Calm initially carved out in us. In this rare slice of history, Christmas is tangibly real in its effect on human hearts pitted in mean circumstances.

All Is Calm is a story of tragic heroes. Fresh, young men march off to war amid patriotic songs and pomp. Within months, their dream of returning in glory by Christmas lay trampled in the muck of freezing trench warfare. Actor John Catron recites the letter of one Brit who, upon seeing his chap slaughtered by shrapnel, determines never to befriend another soldier, lest he again feel such acute pain.

It is also a story of dreams. Imagine, says the young officer Winston Churchill, if soldiers went on strike and demanded a better way to solve disputes? A young soldier echoes the sentiment as he wonders, "Could it have happened? If we had decided to end the fighting, could we have stopped the war? "Above all, though, Rothstein and Cantus (led by artistic director Erick Lichte) find the ineffable mystery of this story: German and Allied voices take on haunting resonance, singing Stille Nacht on a field normally thundering with artillery; a French opera tenor amazes comrades by spontaneously singing O Holy Night; the 23rd Psalm is solemnly recited in English and German as enemies honor their fallen; the sheer felicity of the moment is reflected in one soldier's observation that "we were laughing and chatting with men we were trying to shoot hours before."

These miracles are what make All Is Calm such a pure example of what was meant when angels first declared, "Peace on Earth."

Michael Hefty