Tuesday, November 30, 2021

"All is Calm" by Theater Latte Da at the Ritz Theater

Theater Latte Da's first full production in their 24th season is the annual favorite, All is Calm. I've seen it eight times now, and it never fails to move me, in fact it continually finds new ways to move me. Peter Rothstein created the piece about a dozen years ago, and it has morphed throughout the years, eventually being whittled down to its current concise and practically perfect 65-minute form. The story alone is inspiring - the Christmas Truce of 1914, when soldiers on both sides put down their weapons for a spontaneous truce in the beginnings of WWI. And this piece of music-theater, which combines period songs with historical text from letters, journals, and newspaper articles, is simply the most powerful way to tell the story that I can imagine. It's told with such precision, thoughtfulness, and economy; every word, every gesture, every note rings true and has meaning. All is Calm is truly my favorite #TCTheater holiday* production because it conveys what I believe is the core meaning of this season - peace, stillness, reflection, community, and connection.

The show takes us from the soldiers' excitement at going off to war and having adventures, to the realization that war is truly awful, to that one day of peace they found in the trenches, when both sides put down their weapons and celebrated their common humanity. The story is told continuously with no applause breaks, just song into text (letters, articles, poems, and other historical documents) and back to song again. At the beginning of the show, the next piece of dialogue begins before the previous song ends, so there's no space to applaud, but by the end we're so transfixed by the story that moments of profound silence are allowed into the show, and the audience is loathe to break the spell we've fallen under by making any sound at all.

the cast of All is Calm (photo by Dan Norman)
The 11-person cast (all of whom have performed in the show previously) sings a capella the gorgeous arrangements by Erick Lichte and Timothy C. Takach. Each one of them (Andrew Wilkowske, Ben Johnson, Benjamin Dutcher, David Darrow, Evan Tyler Wilson, James Ramlet, Nicholas Davis, Phinehas Bynum, Riley McNutt, Rodolfo Nieto, and Sasha Andreev) has an incredible voice individually, and combined together they make a truly beautiful and stirring sound singing songs of the period, both Christmas carols and war songs. Familiar songs sound brand new, culminating in simply the most stunning arrangement of "Silent Night" you'll ever here. The sound mix is just perfect; the performers are miked but very subtly. When one has a monologue or solo, they're heard clearly, but in moments of harmony the sound is beautifully balanced, so full and resonate it almost feels like they're unmiked, with no amplification to get in the way of the sound (sound design by Nicholas Tranby).

The ensemble reads the words of real soldiers in a delightful plethora of British accents, as well as a few German (dialect coach Keely Wolter), followed by the name and regiment of the author, which brings history to life in a personal and poignant way. The staging is minimal, with just a few crates to create some visual interest, and subtle lighting changes to help create the mood (designed by Marcus Dilliard). Real WWI soldiers wish they were dressed as well as this cast, in Trevor Bowen's chic array of layered black sweaters, coats, hats, gloves, scarves, and kilts. Everything about the show is thoughtful, simple, effective, and perfect.**

What I love about this piece is that it doesn't romanticize war, as so many things in our culture do, it romanticizes peace. These soldiers aren't heroes for taking up weapons and killing their enemies, they're heroes for having the audacity to practice non-violence and see their enemies as fellow humans, even if only for one day. What a truly remarkable and exceedingly brave act. It feels as if we're at war on so many fronts these days, with "enemies" everywhere we turn. What if we could see our enemies as humans, just for a moment, humans with shared traditions, similar wants and needs, common experiences? If these soldiers would do it in the face of death, why can't we?

All is Calm continues at the Ritz Theater in Northeast Minneapolis through January 2 (click here for info and tickets).

*Click here to read about all of the holiday shows I've seen this year.
**Some text borrowed from what I wrote about previous productions.