“All Is Calm” is an overpowering, fitting tribute to the holiday season, as presented in a stark new production at Moline’s Black Box Theatre.
But as opposed to carefree, colorful, Christmas jollity (and a “forget your troubles, get happy” vibe), this dark, monochromatic collection of a cappella songs demands that we remember our troubles and also pay tribute to the possibility of peace, calm, joy and unbreakable, undeniable togetherness that can unite humanity at this special time of year.
Before a stunning, intense performance of the one-act, hourlong piece on Dec. 9, director (and BBT co-founder) Lora Adams — who has unerring taste — said she never directs something unless she is very passionate about it. “This was on my wish list for a long while.”
It’s easy to see why. “All Is Calm” features nine men (all dressed in varying kinds of black uniforms), representing over 30 British and German soldiers in December 1914, in the first part of World War I. The special evening depicts a real-life extraordinary night of camaraderie (among British and German soldiers in a “No Man’s Land” in Belgium), music, and peace.
The excellent, emotional, dedicated BBT cast is comprised of Phil Tunnicliff, Ben Gougeon, Daniel Williams, Thayne Lamb, Don Faust, Drew DeKeyrel, Kirsten Myers, Vaughn Myers and Jorge Mendez, with musical direction by Ron May.
Adams — who staged and designed the production with Roger Pavey, Jr. creating the light design — appropriately has a bare, black set, with minimal props and set pieces. “This is a very unique evening of theatre and tells a remarkable true story of Christmas Eve 1914,” Adams said recently. “With all of the holiday concerts, it was difficult to find men to audition, but I am so pleased that my cast is so enthusiastic about telling this story.
“I’m particularly blessed that Ron May came on board as the music director. This is a difficult piece and he’s the man to make it happen,” she said.
The challenge is due partly because war is of course such a difficult subject, and that “All Is Calm” is filled with nearly unending singing (all without accompaniment). After starting with the heart-wrenching Scottish song, “Will Ye Go To Flanders” (led by Kirsten Myers), there is nary a pitch pipe that peeps to give the guys their first pitch before each number. That takes concentration and commitment.
While the evening is fittingly reverent and solemn, it is far from an unrelenting downer. There is boisterous bonhomie in the British calls for enlistment; in the friendly “Pack Up Your Troubles” and the exuberant drinking song “Wassail.”
There are very impressive harmonies among the boys throughout the show, and “All Is Calm” makes it a point for each man to say their soldier’s name and title after each short speech. Especially in the camaraderie between supposed enemies, it shows the obvious similarities among all people — that we share so much more in common than what divides us (whether race, national origin, creed or sexual orientation). Why can’t more people see that?
The show notes that soldiers hoped that the “Great War” would be over by Christmas 1914, but of course that was not true. The inspiring Christmas truce was never recreated during the four-year-war. Nearly 9 million soldiers died as a result of wounds and/or disease in World War I.
In “All Is Calm,” we learn the awful toll of war, the urge of soldiers to go home, the fear, the terrible weather that flooded trenches, but also how men created invaluable, incalculable bonds.
Clear highlights are near the end of the show, the back-to-back “Silent Night” (begun in its original German, music composed by Austian Franz Gruber in 1818), and the solo “O Holy Night,” sung in French by Phil Tunnicliff.
Though commemorating an astonishing event over a century ago, “All Is Calm” carries poignant lessons for us today, to never stop fighting for peace, love and understanding. The final performances will be at Black Box (1623 5th Ave., Moline) at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 15, and Saturday, Dec. 17.
For tickets and more information, visit the BBT website HERE.