Review: Mustard Seed's 'All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914'

By Christopher Reilly
In Culture

Just as the holiday season winks from around the corner, tempting the masses with envy-inducing commercials and the cleverest of toys, Mustard Seed Theatre reminds us that Christmas is more than just a sack-full of shiny baubles.

“All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914,” an a cappella musical, recounts the true WWI story when soldiers on both sides laid down their arms for a holiday truce. The evening is one of masterful storytelling heightened by admirable singing and clean, effective theatricality. This production captivates, deeply moves and ultimately, exposes the absurdity of war while shining its benevolent light on the nature of man’s humanity.

All Is Calm at Mustard Seed Theatre (Photo John Lamb)

All Is Calm at Mustard Seed Theatre (Photo John Lamb)

The play is structured a la Ken Burns’ “The Civil War,” with actors speaking from the writings of actual participants or notables of the day. These insightful spoken nuggets do much to set the mood and reinforce the true nature of man and warfare, which then makes the truce all the more poignant.

Author Peter Rothstein wisely keeps the conveyance of the horror of war as an intellectual understanding, rather than live-action mayhem with overwrought scenes where best buddies die sanguinely in each others’ arms, as though audiences are incapable of understanding the salience of the truce without visual aids. No, Rothstein lets the words of our fellows lead us along. Instead of screaming its message, “All Is Calm” whispers, asking us to think and consider.

All Is Calm at Mustard Seed Theatre (Photo John Lamb)

All Is Calm at Mustard Seed Theatre (Photo John Lamb)

When they lay down their arms and meet on the battlefield, the enemy combatants share food and drink, play soccer and help bury each other’s dead, frozen for weeks on the battlefield. Finding a sweet and pure humanity on that cold morning, these enemies are united by the Christmas carols (and drinking songs) of their homelands. The quality of the performances—and the singing—is exemplary, as though the cast has been chorusing together for a very long time.

The show plays as a moving musical tableau on Kyra Bishop’s rustic wood set—several crates here and there and platforms with jutting fence posts supporting lazy lines of tangled barbed wire. Michael Sullivan’s dramatic background lighting, Joe Schoen’s music and Jane Sullivan’s authentic WWI uniforms combine to create a technically flawless production. A shout-out even goes to dialect coach Richard Lewis for the excellent accents, including Scottish, German and British accents from privileged class to commoners.

All Is Calm at Mustard Seed Theatre (Photo John Lamb)

All Is Calm at Mustard Seed Theatre (Photo John Lamb)

Deanna Jent avoids forcing this play into a particular vision, instead letting it unfurl in its own way, guiding the story calmly, marching it along, always advancing. Under her keen direction, the show becomes as simple as truth, and just as beautiful. The true story is told in small moments—a tender reaction to a loved one’s letter or an actor’s expression—and of course by the songs from home and afar. The actors all are superlative and Jent makes the most of them.

Unavoidably, the truce must end as truces do, brought to an abrupt halt by orders from superiors who see the world in a different way, or perhaps they don’t really see the world at all. The soccer field once again becomes a battlefield, and with one last chorus of “Auld Lang Syne,” handshakes are exchanged for rifles. One soldier asks, “What if we’d all walked away and refused to fight?” We are more than our nationalities and petty arguments. We are human. “All Is Calm” celebrates, tenderly, the humanity in all of us.

“All Is Calm” continues at Mustard Seed through Nov. 24. For tickets and information visit the Mustard Seed Theatre website.

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