December 21, 2007

By GRAYDON ROYCE,

Star Tribune

Tossed off with a chirpy smile and handshake, the clichés of Christmas greetings offer but a slight anodyne to winter's dreary fog. How lovely, then, to reclaim the meaning of the phrase All is Calm. A new work for spoken word and choral voices uses that title to commemorate an extraordinary moment when Christian peace trumped war in 1914. It is being performed by Theatre Latté Da and Cantus this weekend, and likely will become a classic to be repeated for years to come.

The story is too rare and sweet to have sprung from fiction. At Christmas 1914, Allied and German troops along the Western Front stumbled into a truce — spending the day sharing small gifts, gathering their dead, skirmishing in football matches. Both sides, vexed by the grinding and dull horror of trench warfare, found comradeship in each other — often defying orders against fraternization.

"What would happen if the armies simultaneously went on strike?" mused the British officer Winston Churchill (yes, the very same). His is one of numerous quotations taken from letters, postcards and diaries that are woven among some 26 songs -- from optimistic recruiting ditties to mournful carols of hope.

Theatre Latté Da's Peter Rothstein assembled the readings in a concise chronological arc that uses the soldiers' experience as a dramatic prod. We are asked to imagine the wonder of tired, soaked Brits looking up and seeing a single German standing above his trench, singing Stille Nacht. We see in our mind's eye — and feel in our heart — the rush of emotions as these tired fellows clamber over the barbed wire to greet the enemy soldier in No Man's Land.

"It was as if we had decided to end the fighting all by ourselves," wrote one Tommy.

Actors John Catron, David Roberts and Alan Sorensen give us the readings, and eight men from Cantus provide the unadorned human voice in song — a hollow, pure instrument that is transcendent. Among many, the most moving highlight might be the solo of Gary Ruschman. He reenacts the moment when Victor Granier, a tenor with the Paris Opera, sings O Holy Night. Within the context of bloodshed and mayhem, the song has never felt so important.

Rothstein, Cantus artistic director Erick Lichte and their charges have given us a great gift this season, reinvesting the words "Peace on Earth" with their true meaning.

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Star Tribune, 2007