Created by Peter Rothstein in 2007, this remarkable piece has traveled around the world. I’m only sorry I came to it so late in terms of alerting people to its quality and power. If you can possibly make the time, this is a simply wonderful theatrical experience.
On December 7, 1914, in the first year of WWI, Pope Benedict XV begged for a Christmas Truce. Germany agreed, while Allies rejected the idea. Soldiers on the front often allowed opposition to collect their dead or restock rations. Trenches were so close, specifics were shouted across the lines. Many Germans had spent time in England creating common language. Still, higher-ups forbade even this.
We open with one soldier, then others, voices rising out of the dark as each appears like a ghost. The heady “Will Ye Go to Flanders?” is followed by “Come On and Join,” a recruitment song written to the tune of “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” Ten a capella voices create a gorgeous sound. Arrangements are extraordinary, instrumentation not for a moment missed.
“You can’t imagine the war fever in those days. Everyone thought we would beat the Germans-the war would be over by Christmas… Dick Barron, 2nd London Mounted Brigade.” Men step forward identifying themselves, sharing what drove each to enlist. It’s Rothstein’s intention that those unrecognized by history be acknowledged. We hear several classes of British and Scots, later, Germans and French. Actors employ multiple accents. Predominant text comes from servicemen who were there.
The men turn their backs and take an oath. Then, Goodbye-ee, Goodbye-ee/I’ll be tickled to death to go/Don’t Cry-ee, don’t sigh-ee…(R.P.Weston/Burt Lee) Memories of shipping out are buoyed by “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” (Jack Judge/Harry Williams), then shadowed by fear.
Intermittently, we hear excerpts of letters written by those serving; boys, sometimes very young, often away from home the first time, enduring cold, hunger, limited rations, oppressive weather, rats, and ever present death. None are self-pitying. Traditional songs, trench songs, and Christmas songs bridge text.
“Well dad, I have been in the trenches from Friday…and would have enjoyed it very much, only for the rain which made us look like Mudlarks. Private Jack Sweeney, 1st Battalion Lincolnshire Regiment.”
Soldiers smoke, eat, sew, wring out socks, polish boots…sitting on crates, creating one of many painterly tableaux vivants. “Pack Up Your Troubles …in Your Old Kit Bag” (George Henry/Felix Powell) is tailed by “I Want to Go Home” (Lieutenant Gitz Rice) and “When This Bloody War is Over” (Charles Crozat Converse), as romance falls away and men learn what they’re up against.
“Five minutes ago I heard sniper fire./Why did he do it?/Starlight overhead./Blank stars./I’m wide awake and some chaps dead. Siegfried Sassoon, Royal Welch Fusiliers.” Integration of music and monologue is seamless. One man writes to his son. Another loses his best friend, vowing to get close to no one else. Churchill speaks. Lyrics grow randy. We hear from Germans.
At Christmas, the Bosch light a holiday tree in their trenches. Eighty yards away, singing English and French carols, allied forces have no idea what they’re seeing. Suddenly the men hear “Stille Nacht” (“Silent Night”- Franz Gruber). A lone German soldier walks out on the parapet counting on universal good will to keep him safe… “We admired his guts.” A British soldier meets him in no man’s land and so it begins.
The French version of “Silent Night” floats in on exalted tenor as men approach one another. “I shall never forget it. It was one of the highlights of my life. Albert Moren, 2nd Queen’s Regiment.” Played on stage, we see relief, surprise, gratitude, recognition, brotherhood. Tokens are exchanged. Some speak of England. Enemies play football (soccer).
“We don’t want to kill you and you don’t want to kill us, so why shoot? Cyril Drummond, Royal Field Artillery.” Allies and Germans sing, pray and mourn side by side with the same hopes. If only… hangs in the air like a thick, low fog. If only…all the troops refused to continue fighting.
Alfred Anderson, 1st/5th Battalion-Black Watch, was billeted in a farmhouse away from the front line. “I remember the silence, the eerie sound of silence… We all went outside the farm buildings and just stood listening.”
“Auld Lang Syne” joined by English, Scots, Irish, French, Prussians, and Germans closes the chapter. In Rothstein’s version, a German soldier carrying a bucket is deliberately shot the next day. Voices erupt in cacophony. The author’s deft epilogue shows some strive to remember…not only a wondrous incident but its humanity. Most, of course, as both historical and current politic attest, do not. We close gently, respectfully, with awe and regret. A simply beautiful evocation.
It would be frivolous to call out any actor as every solo shone, every character was present.
Peter Rothstein’s Direction is aesthetically appealing, immensely moving and fluid.
Dialect Coach Keely Wolter captures the essence of varied tongues. Costumes by Trevor Bowen are detailed and homogeneous. Lighting Designer Marcus Dillard conjures. Nicolas Tranby’s Sound Design catches every nuance – and there are a multitude.
Cast: Sasha Andreev, David Darrow, Benjamin Dutcher, Ben Johnson, Mike McGowan, Tom McNichols, Riley McNutt, Rodolfo Nieto, James Ramlet, Evan Tyler Wilson
Photos by Dan Norman
Laura Little Theatricals presents
All Is Calm: The Christmas Trice of 1914 by Peter Rothstein
Musical Arrangements-Erick Lichte and Timothy C. Takach
Music Director- Erick Lichte
Director Peter Rothstein
Through December 30, 2018
The Sheen Center
18 Bleecker Street