It seemed right to go back for another look at "All Is Calm," which opened Wednesday at the Hennepin Theatre Trust's Pantages Theatre. Singers from Cantus and actors from Theater Latté Da first brought this exquisite story to the Pantages five years ago, and it endures as a timeless ritual of human dreams and Christmas mystery -- the story of soldiers trying to bring peace on Earth in the midst of war.
In 1914, the nations raged furiously and by winter, enemies had settled into a stalemate on the bloody European soil. British lads, reared in the innocent age, had assumed a quick victory when they marched off in August; at Christmastide, they and their German foes were knee-deep in cold muck.
On Christmas Eve, though, the spirit of the season came upon the men, and stray incident built upon stray incident until the soldiers leaped from their trenches and into a communal celebration. As one soldier in "All Is Calm" declaims with wondering astonishment, "We were shaking hands with men we were trying to kill."
Peter Rothstein, Latté Da's artistic director, used journal entries, letters, official documents and speeches from both sides to tell the tale. Cantus sings songs of war, of homesickness, of Christmas and of cold sadness.
Matt Rein reads from the thoughts of a young Scotsman, whose optimism and cheer died the moment shrapnel took a buddy:
"That was me pal, gone. ... I never palled up with anybody else, not after you've had that feeling."
This raw and aching beauty defines "All Is Calm." Rothstein's decision to let the men speak for themselves seems wiser than ever, for these words assume a sacred quality. They carry the hopes and the amazement of young men terrorized by war and then healed by a moment of mysterious mercy. In this, "All Is Calm" becomes a small, still litany, taking details of history and transforming them into something far greater -- a myth that manifests the highest ideals of humanity.
We are told of a German soldier, who had "left his trench and was standing on the top bank, in the open and in full view. He then walked towards us and stood in the middle of No Man's Land. He either had the full confidence in the Christian spirit of Christmas Day or was completely round the twist but, whatever it was, we admired his guts."
This year's "All Is Calm" comes in the wake of the opera "Silent Night," which won a Pulitzer Prize for composer Kevin Puts and was premiered by Minnesota Opera in 2011. For all the grand and epic character of that piece -- based on the film "Joyeux Noel" -- its earthbound fictional plot never touches the quiet and humbling truth of "All Is Calm."
More than 9 million men were killed in World War I, the catastrophic entree into the 20th century's carnage. "All Is Calm" testifies to their memory with simple profundity.
"It was as if we had decided to end the fighting all by ourselves," says actor David Roberts in a poignant recitation. "Could it have really happened like this? If all the troops all along the line had refused to fight, on both sides, would the war have ended there and then? I doubt it, but it's a thought."
And a perfect thought for the season.
Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299