I hate Christmas. I hate the commercialism, I hate the maudlin sentiments and I hate the "entertainment" that comes with the season. If there were, in fact, an actual War on Christmas, I'd be on the frontlines shouting "Happy holidays!" at old ladies while drinking from a plain red Starbucks cup.
But I love Mustard Seed Theatre's production of Peter Rothstein's All Is Calm. For three years running the company has staged this a capella musical about the spontaneous Christmas truces that sprang up on the frontlines of World War I, and every year I enjoy the show more than I did the last. Director Deanna Jent and musical director Joe Schoen together craft a powerful story about peace, love and empathy that shines like a beacon in these darkening days.
The company enters singing "Will Ye Go to Flanders?" in darkness, which is made haunting by the low, organ-like tone the deeper-voiced men drone under the lyrics. They sing of their eagerness to sign up for the war, their joyous departure for the Western Front, and their eventual boredom with the monotonous grind of daily army life. But when winter settles in and they realize the war might last longer than the three months everyone believed it would, the songs take on a sadder hue.
All of the music is either popular songs of the early-nineteenth century, such as Irving Berlin's "Come On and Join" and "It's a Long Way to Tipperary," or Christmas carols from Germany, England and France. Between songs, the cast adopts the roles of various soldiers from both sides of the war, speaking of dead friends, their families back home and their growing disgust for the songs of their enemies, which they can hear at night. All of this dialogue is taken from actual soldiers' letters and diaries.
By this point I know some of the recitations by heart. Still, there's a difference between knowing them and hearing them once more. In this year's production, Greg Lhamon reads us a letter home to his young son in which he urges the boy to be brave, and tears well in his eyes as he tries to be strong brave himself. You can't help but think that children across the country are receiving similar letters this Christmas from fathers deployed overseas. The only difference is that some of those letters are now written by mothers — such is the progress of war in 101 years.
The cast is wholly excellent throughout, managing a variety of accents and engaging in soldierly business in the middle of songs that add to the verisimilitude of the production. During a suitably depressed rendition of "I Want to Go Home" by the English soldiers, a resplendently moustachioed Gerry Love punches a fellow soldier in the shoulder, which sets off a chain reaction of slaps and giggles among the troupe. Only the martial tones of Haydn's "Deutschlandlied" from across no man's land sours the mood.
But when Christmas Eve comes, one brave German (Tim Schall) emerges from the trenches singing "Stille Nacht" as he approaches the English side. Schall could scat-sing dubstep and I'd listen eagerly, but with a truly beautiful song he works magic. The rest of the cast joins in, gathering together in the wreckage of center stage (well-designed by Kyra Bishop) as the lights dim and the stars come out. A small Christmas tree flickers hopefully at stage left while the company hovers on the refrain "All is calm," willing the war to stop. There is a palpable feeling that we have crossed a barrier at this point — that the ghosts of the past are here, imploring us to remember that they chose brotherhood over enmity in the midst of war, that we could all be one if we wanted.
I've seen 400 shows in the past eight years, give or take a couple. Those stars emerging as eleven intertwined voices sing the world into stillness stand alone, and I wish to experience them every Christmas.