Playhouse on Park’s ‘All is Calm’ a warm, moving portrayal of 1914 Christmas Truce

Christopher Arnott, Hartford Courant

Playhouse on Park’s latest attempt at bringing a lively local theatrical experience to a streaming site near you is a melodic war drama, “All is Calm,” available on demand through Jan. 3.

Filmed outdoors at Auerfarm in Bloomfield in a single day just two weeks ago, “All is Calm” behaves like a play or a concert, with a direct, warm vitality.

The play with music is one of many dramatic adaptations of a heralded 20th century true Christmas story: the real-life occasion when opposing forces in a World War I battle stopped killing each other for a little while in observance of Christmas.

“All is Calm” sets itself apart from the others by combining oral history with choral majesty. The story of the ceasefire isn’t acted out as much as it is recited. A cappella songs wind through the storytelling, and usually overpower it. Some of the songs are known carols like “O Tannenbuam.” Others are more obscure, or more classical, or more spiritual. One is a wartime parody of a pop standard, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” sung as “Come on and join Lord Kitchener’s Army!” “All is Calm”'s title song, which transcends its “Silent Night” origins, is a full ensemble emotional workout that marks a turning point in the drama and the high point of the entire show.

The show was originally developed and performed in Minneapolis by the Cantus Vocal Ensemble with Theater Latté Da, and had its off-Broadway debut just two years ago at New York’s Sheen Center for Thought & Culture. It’s a special theater/music hybrid, but Playhouse on Park is becoming known for those, having in recent years done “Peter and the Starcatcher,”“Passing Strange” and “Murder for Two.”

This streaming version is fully a Playhouse on Park production, helmed by its literary manager Sasha Bratt with familiar faces in the cast such as Niko Touros from the playhouse’s “In the Heights” and Michael Hinton from “Moon for the Misbegotten.”

There’s no suspense about what’s going to happen in “All is Calm.” There’s a spoiler right there in its subtitle, “The Christmas Truce of 1914.” The show’s creator Peter Rothstein doesn’t try to spin any surprises or indulge in fantasy or revisionist history.

The tasks he’s set for himself are to set an appropriate tone, humanize the characters and make sure the results are consistently entertaining even though you know exactly what’s coming and you know the good stuff won’t happen until the end. Rothstein holds your attention with historical details, the dropping of famous names, or first-person accounts of the suffering of the soldiers.

The players — three professional actors, nine others who are primarily singers — are identified not by character names but as “Actor 1,” “Actor 2,”etc., and they change their voices and attitudes often, embodying entire platoons. All are male, except for a single female character brought on for a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sight gag. Some of the actors’ recitations are staged more like soliloquies or comic monologues, but the style always returns to flat, calm storytelling. A joke is told, the actors evince merriment, then a narrative voice feels obliged to say “We all had a good laugh.”

There are no props outside of a wine bottle, cigarettes and pipes and coffee mugs. There are no firearms; this is not an action show. The costumes are deliberately not historically accurate, going for a universal feel. The cast is clad in beat-up army jackets, scarfs, decent non-denim jeans and various sorts of winter hats. You could do a production of “Hair” in these costumes. Indeed, nobody in the show has a regulation Army haircut; scruffy beards abound.

There are some awkward European accents. Attempts to liven up the text often result in bad mime gestures. The ensemble is best when standing and singing. That’s where “All is Calm”'s real power lies.

There’s also a special resonance in a show about death and isolation, played out in a cold empty field, during a pandemic that has kept so many home or distanced.

The overall effect is much more than just Christmas carolers holding a lessons-and-carols concert in someone’s sprawling backyard. Br 1/4 u00e4tt and the camera operators work the surroundings eloquently into the drama. Trees loom. Darkness falls. A full moon shines. Dead leaves on the ground add color and texture. Special video effects in the show include period photographs and even some grainy old war film footage.

“All is Calm” is a meditative, contemplative, harmonious blend of Christmas songs, good cheer and the sermon-like story of men who momentarily decided “Can’t we all just get along?” It’s also another stream-to-survive success for Playhouse on Park, following its equally skillful stage-to-screen translation of “Kennedy: Bobby’s Last Crusade.” “All is Calm” has a lived-in, present-day winter in Connecticut feel to it. It’s a show for our times, and a fine alternative to all the “Christmas Carols” out there this month.

Playhouse on Park’s production of “All is Calm” is streaming on demand (through through Jan. 3. Tickets are $20 plus service fees. playhouseonpark.org.