We don’t spend much time thinking about the First World War here in the States. Our involvement was relatively short and we aren’t continually bombarded by the monuments or the mass gravesites as they are in Europe. And, unlike in the Second World War, neither side can claim a clear moral upper hand. One can imagine, in fact, that if both sides were left alone long enough from superior officers they may have even gotten along. And it seems that’s exactly what happened, at least for one brief period. All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914, presented by ArtsCenter Stage, depicts the unofficial, nearly weeklong winter armistice during the first Christmas of the War. Neither side declared an official truce, but all over the Western Front, men put down their guns in the name of goodwill toward men and met the enemy halfway to shake hands, trade, play football, solemnly bury the dead, and (of course) sing.
It’s a wonderful topic for a play, but unfortunately the script by Peter Rothstein doesn’t quite give the full dramatic exploration the event deserves. Existing somewhere between a play and a choral showcase, the work narrates the events while splicing them with renditions of Christmas classics. The all-male, eleven-person cast takes over the roles of the varied soldiers and officers on both sides, performing dramatic readings of letters, telegrams, official orders, and newspaper clippings, to show the actual words and times of these men. The use of actual documents in the work helps suggest a feeling of forgotten historical significance. However, it also makes the play feel distant. The result is a collage of the event rather than a full-scale theatrical examination.
The focus is truly the music, and the vocals were stunning. Supported by the Cantari Mens Vocal Ensemble, music director Sue Klausmeyer pulled powerful and somber performances from her cast. Mesmerizing renditions of songs like “Auld Lang Syne” and “Silent Night” reminded us of our common and shared humanity, despite creed or politic, while songs like, “If You Want to Find the Old Battalion” reminded us of the terrible toll of war. Despite the lack of plot, the powerful anti-war sentiment was felt throughout and the poignant question was asked, “Could they have ended the War?” If these young men had decided for themselves the enemy was not worth fighting, could we have been spared the nine million lives lost?
Director Jeri Lynn Schulke has created dynamic blocking for a work that started its life as radio drama. And while the piece is held down by inconsistent accents, the actors produce vibrant monologues, often underscored by subdued choral melodies. Action takes place on an asymmetrical thrust, designed by James Carnahan, and wooden planks suggest makeshift barricades. Dead trees give the sense of a shell-shocked countryside, and Miyuki Su’s painted floor suggests land stripped and barren.
In America, it’s often easy for us to forget the cost of war. Drone strikes and air raids remove from our minds, on some level, the human cost. And the geographic distance makes us forget our shared humanity. Moreover, as our own nation’s streets look more and more like war zones with increasingly militarized police, and continually divisive politics and media, we seem to be forgetting our own shared humanity right in our own borders. It seems Christmas can’t come soon enough this year, and ArtsCenter Stage allows us an all too brief reprieve.
All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914 continues through Sunday, December 14. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.