History Deconstructed

December 20, 2011.
By Becki Iverson, Twin Cities Metro Magazine.

Part concert, part recitation, and part pantomime, All Is Calm is an entirely unique approach to the season’s most popular Christmas story.

The show uses the inimitable vocal stylings of Cantus, the nine-piece male vocal group, and three actors to simply tell the story of the Christmas Truce, which occurred on the first Christmas of World War I in 1914.

As the story goes, each nation embroiled in the war had promised its troops that they would be home by Christmas. When they weren’t, the soldiers defied all executive orders and called a ceasefire over the holiday. Instead, they sang Christmas carols, played games and buried each other’s dead. Those who participated were later severely reprimanded for their actions, and the Christmas Truce was not repeated.

As creator Peter Rothstein (of Theater Latte Da fame) writes, “The propaganda machine of war is powerful, and news of soldiers fraternizing across enemy lines would [ ... ] readily undermine public support for the war. The heroes of this story are the lowest of the ranks — the young, the hungry, the cold, and the optimistic — those who acted with great courage to put down their guns, overcoming a fear that placed a gun in their hands in the first place. Their story puts a human face on war, and that’s the story I hope to tell.”

The Christmas Truce was only made possible through the power of music, as each regiment heard foreign soldiers in nearby trenches singing familiar carols in different tongues. These songs bridged other cultural gaps between the soldiers, and All Is Calm rightly focuses itself on these traditional soldier songs and carols.

Rather than imagining a narrative in which to tell this special story, Rothstein chose to only use text created by the soldiers of World War I. Vignettes and songs were selected from diaries, letters, museums, radio broadcasts and more after he extensively researched the Christmas Truce abroad.

The staging Rothstein chose is also basic, with each performer attired in black winter clothing and a simple set of crates and platforms, leaving the audience free to focus on the text.

The effect of this “history deconstructed” structure is uniquely elegant. Many of the soldiers’ quotes are eloquent and simple, and are beautifully juxtaposed with Cantus.

Cantus’ vocals are perfect for the show, which Rothstein wrote specifically for them. They are layered and reflect the reality of the battlefield, where often the only thing the soldiers had to make music with was their voices. Cantus rearranged some traditional carols (“0 Tannenbaum” and “Silent Night” being the loveliest and eeriest of them), and their lonely deliveries of battlefield songs such as “Will Ye Go To Flanders?” bring a haunting sadness to the story.

The show’s actors (Matt Rein, David Roberts and Alan Sorenson), also do a fine job despite
some inconsistent regional accents. They help the show clip by at an intermission-less 75
minutes.

All Is Calm first premiered in 2007, and the Hennepin Theatre Trust continues to stage the show each year at Christmas time to remind audiences of one of the most magical Christmas tales of all. It is a wonderful break from the hustle and bustle of the corporatized holiday season, reminding us all that sometimes the best gives we receive are the simplest ones.