Posts Tagged ‘world war i’

All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914

An Acapella Musical by Peter Rothstein

Directed by Deanna Jent

Mustard Seed Theatre

November 8, 2013

The Cast of All Is Calm Photo by John Lamb Mustard Seed Theatre

The Cast of All Is Calm
Photo by John Lamb
Mustard Seed Theatre

Today, November 11th, is Veteran’s Day in the USA and Remberance Day or Armistice Day in various countries around the world. While it is now a day to remember those who served in all wars, it was instituted to commemorate the Armistice of 1918, which brought an end to the bloodiest conflict the world had seen at the time, the First World War. It’s an appropriate weekend for the opening of Mustard Seed Theatre’s latest production, All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914, which highlights a moment of brightness in the midst of the horrors of war, and celebrates the humanity and dignity of the men who fought in that war. It’s a musical tribute to a moment that is well worth remembering, and Mustard Seed’s cast and crew more than do justice to this important subject.

This is a unique show. It’s difficult to figure out what to call it. Is it a musical? A revue? A staged concert? A pageant? All of those terms seem inadequate to describe this remarkable piece. Originally written for a choral ensemble in Minneapolis in 2007, All Is Calm uses the music of the era, along with some classic Christmas carols, to tell the story, along with the dramatized words of actual participants in the conflict. It’s not just singing, though, even though the singing is glorious. This is a fully-staged theatrical presentation that brings the audience into the experience of the soldiers and the atmosphere of the first years of the 20th Century.

From the first haunting notes of “Will Ye Go to Flanders?” all way through to the “The Last Post” bugle call at the end (played on the trumpet by  cast member Antonio Rodriguez), we are taken on a journey with this varied group of soldiers, most of whom were experiencing war for the first time.  They were men of all walks of life, from cities, small towns and the countryside. They were farmers, laborers, and university students.  Some, such as Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, would be remembered as great poets of the era, and others were just regular guys remembering their experiences, and their words are brought to life here.  In a format reminiscent of a Ken Burns documentary, the soldiers’ words are recited and punctuated with many popular songs of the era, capturing the full range of experiences that these men endured as part of the war.

The tone at first is optimistic, as the young men see going to war as an adventure, and are hopeful that it will all be over by Christmas, and then the rude awakening of the realities of war sets in, and the realization that this will be a long and bloody ordeal.  Well-known songs such as “It’s A Long Way to Tipperary” and “Pack Up Your Troubles” are performed with energy and gusto, but these songs give way to more somber moments with numbers such as “Keep the Home Fires Burning”.  There are a few moments where both the serious and the comic relief are covered through the course of one song, such as in “The Old Barbed Wire” and “I Want to Go Home”.  Mustard Seed’s excellent ensemble performs all these songs impeccably, believably portraying the camaraderie of brothers-in-arms in the midst of conflict.

Eventually, Christmas arrives with no end in sight to the war, and the British and German soldiers are presented with the dilemma of what to do.  This leads to the Christmas Truce, in which “Tommy” and “Fritz” laid down their arms for the day and joined together–haltingly at first, and then more enthusiastically–in singing carols in both German and English (“O Tannenbaum”, “Silent Night”).  There were upbeat moments, such as a spontaneous soccer game, as well as more somber moments of remembering their fallen comrades–represented here with a hauntingly beautiful, bi-lingual rendition of “Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming.

Finally, the day came to and end. Commanding officers prohibited further truces and the fighting returned, continuing almost four more years and resulting in millions of casualties. For one brief moment, though, this truce was there to remind these men of not only their enemies’ humanity, but their own, and this sense of unity is beautifully punctuated in this production by a bittersweet rendition of the classic “Auld Lang Syne”, as the soldiers from the two sides prepare to return to their own trenches and renew the conflict.

This production is an ensemble piece in the truest sense.  Every single cast member performed at the highest level of excellence, singing together in beautiful, rich harmonies and portraying a wide range of emotions as soldiers in war.  Also, because of the structure of this show, each cast member had to play various different characters, making use of several varying accents from English and Scottish to German, French and Italian. Director Deanna Jent has assembled a top-notch ensemble in Charlie Barron, Shawn Bowers, J. Samuel Davis, Gary Glasgow, Christopher Hickey, Jason Meyers, Antonio Rodriguez, Tim Schall, Luke Steingruby and Jeffrey Wright. It’s difficult to single out any one performer, because they all worked so well together.  Rodriguez’s beautiful solo on “O Holy Night” deserves a mention, though, as does the excellent acting and dialect work of Glasgow, Barron and Hickey.  Every moment of this show rings with authenticity, and that is because of this great cast that puts their all into every scene and song.  It’s a remarkable accomplishment for a truly excellent ensemble.

Visually, this show is stunning as well.  The meticulously detailed costumes (designed by Jane Sullivan) and simple but evocative set (designed by Kyra Bishop) provide an authentic mood and setting.  Kudos also to lighting designer Michael Sullivan for some striking effects especially in the “Silent Night” sequence, and throughout the show as well. This could very well have been a staged concert with all the glorious music, but the staging, lighting set and costumes made it a fully realized performance that makes a strong impression.

Overall, this is a truly memorable presentation of a little-known moment in world history. I had heard of the Christmas Truce before, but I’m something of a history buff, and World War I in particular has been of interest to me in that it seems to have been largely forgotten (in America, anyway), or at least overshadowed by World War II in history books and dramatic representations.  I think it’s worth remembering all these brave men who endured all the ugliness and horror of battle while keeping their humanity in the process, and moments like the Christmas Truce help demonstrate that humanity.  Mustard Seed Theatre’s production of All Is Calm is a striking and poignant tribute to this incident and these brave soldiers.  It is a more than worthy portrayal of an event that deserves to be remembered for years to come.

All Is Calm cast Photo by John Lamb Mustard Seed Theatre

All Is Calm cast
Photo by John Lamb
Mustard Seed Theatre

Read Full Post »