FOND DU LAC, Wis. (WFRV) – More than legend has it from World War I that front line German and Allied soldiers put down their arms on December 24th of 1914 and shared warmth befitting Christmas Eve.
Generations later, along came a theatrical venture that artistically distills what happened.
The piece is loaded with songs, poignant touches and meaning.
“All is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914” is a music-filled story running for two more performances in Prairie Theater of the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh Fond du Lac Campus as the theater program breathes anew.
Eleven performers – men and women – portray more than one character and more than one nationality with varied accents. They sing in solo and as a group on a mostly bare stage. They dress in uniforms, except when portraying a beloved aunt and the pope at the time, Benedict XV.
Early in December 1914 in the real world, the pope suggested a truce for Christmas, but the brass said no. Soldiers on both sides and in various places sloughed off the orders.
Using dramatic license, the show builds to Christmas Eve, including the optimism soldiers embraced going into what they believed would be the glories of war. Through songs from trenches and sheet music and Victrolas, the tale builds around trials and tribulations. The miseries of the water-logged trenches are told through individual little monologues. The loss of friends brings a full dose of reality. (On a table in the lobby, a small display includes background on the battling that includes a grim photo of perhaps an acre of human bones).
The text comes from letters, poetry and gravestones. At the end of each monologue, the performer speaks a name of the man and his unit.
The perspectives are from soldiers from the big three – England, Germany and France – with some additional accents from such places as Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
This is a show that holds rapt attention. It includes a tapestry of storytelling with song, moving along from character to character, player to player. Moments after a spoken line ends, a new emotion often arrives in the next breath in song. The tapestry also is of people – the cast, which works in collaboration to tell this large story.
Compelling moments turn around “Silent Night,” sung in multiple ways. Strong and experienced voices are prominent.
Great respect is in the air throughout this production.
The effort of director Chris Flieller (new to the program from a sea of experience in Milwaukee) and music director Eva Thelen-Dunphy (from the community) can be seen and heard in the success of the players as they weigh in with the array of accents, emotions and characterizations, often while delivering a song. One section creates, with human voice, tones as if of a chorus of bells in blended harmony.
It’s a challenging production, and the company of campus and community participants brings it off with worthy effect.
There are whole other stories behind this production, starting with a restructuring of UW campuses and then the COVID-19 pandemic. Whither the theater program? “We here at the FDL campus are taking the stand that theatre should and will go on making a positive difference in the lives of individuals and the community at large,” says Chris Flieller in his director’s notes.
The meaty, demanding “All is Calm” says more than what’s in the captivating story.
Creative: Creator – Peter Rothstein; vocal arrangements – Erick Lichte and Timothy C. Takach; director – Chris Flieller; musical director – Eva Thelen-Dunphy; costume design – Cheryl DuBrava; stage manager – Allison Brunet; assistant musical director/rehearsal accompanist – Michael Dunphy
Robert Christopher Reeves
Running time: 65 minutes (no intermission)
Remaining performances: 7 p.m. Dec 2-3
Note: Masks are required of audience members due to COVID-19 protocol.
NEXT: “Inherit the Wind” by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, April 28-30.
THE VENUE: Prairie Theater is a 340-seat theater in University Center of the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, Fond du Lac Campus. Distinctive trait for audience members: Especially spacious seating area, with much leg room. The performance space is wide, with a proscenium (flat-front) with a dark stage curtain and slightly bowed space of approximately 12 feet reaching toward the audience. The performance space is approximately four feet above the seating area, with another rise of about two feet for some settings for “Leviathan.” The seats are of rose taupe fabric with a geometric pattern, with the backs being plastic and the arms wood. The floor is poured cement, with four aisles carpeted. The ceiling is a configuration of dark, rectangular acoustical clouds. The side walls feature tan quarried stone in approximately 15-inch squares for the first 12 or so feet up, leading to six wooden rectangles and three large, tan areas above that framed in wood. Behind the side walls are ramped hallways that lead to alcoves on either side of the main seating area that look like porches, including metal railings and two seats. On the alcove walls are more large tiles that look to be for acoustical purposes. The theater is lighted dimly. Outside the theater is a large commons area that is part of the University Center building.