With all the crummy news about theatrical closings and postponements, there is this bright spot: We can still enjoy the hope and beauty of “All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914.”
Theater Latté Da’s almost-annual show was taped last year for broadcast on PBS, and the timing couldn’t have worked out better. Created and originally directed by Latté Da co-founder Peter Rothstein, “All Is Calm” blends excerpts from the letters of World War I soldiers with, as one character puts it, “patriotic and sentimental songs,” paying tribute to the singular day in 1914 when troops put down their guns for a period of fellowship. (After two TPT airings this weekend, it will begin streaming Dec. 15.)
In person, “All Is Calm” is a contemplative show but it’s zippier in the televised version. Like the recent Disney Plus taping of “Hamilton,” the TV production captures a performance at which the actors go about their business as if the crew weren’t there, and I occasionally found myself wishing TV director W.J. Lazerus would let the cameras sit, tender and mild, instead of darting all over the place.
The performances can seem big — the actors were playing to a theater house, not a camera — but what “All Is Calm” preserves is the remarkable commitment of the 10 cast members, all of whom perform with immediacy and skill. There’s nothing rote or careless about the purity of their brief readings or their glorious vocal blend (the production’s sound is aces).
The cameras cause us to catch things we might not have chosen to look at in a live setting — I’ve seen “All Is Calm” several times and never noticed performer Rodolfo Nieto retrieving a lantern from a well-disguised prop box — but Lazerus’ restless camera sometimes re-creates the feel of watching a play, where choosing to focus on something that’s not center-stage can deepen a moment. I’m thinking, for instance, of an affecting glimpse of Evan Tyler Wilson silently wiping away a tear during the traditional song, “The Old Barbed Wire.”
One of the highlights remains what is essentially the title song, “Silent Night,” and Lazerus smartly preserves how it sneaks up on you. Benjamin Dutcher begins it as a solo in the original German, so it takes a minute to realize what you’re hearing, just as it must have for the startled soldiers. And if that lovely carol doesn’t get you, just wait until Dutcher uncannily connects this battle to our present one with this observation, “In the middle of the war, we had ourselves a merry Christmas.”
Latté Da’s show acknowledges that the truce was brief, that fighting returned and became even more vicious. In most ways, the truce didn’t change the world. Except, as the show also notes, in Ypres, Belgium, not far from the Flanders battlefields. There, a daily ceremony that climaxes with the promise, “We will remember them,” continues, even in the midst of a pandemic.