The way time marches on these days, it's easy to forget that not long ago it was neither safe nor wise to venture south of Seventh St. on Hennepin Ave. downtown. Those who did quickly found themselves accosted by a small army of drunks and drifters, people who were either unable to afford or simply unwelcome in the sweaty assortment of bars and strip clubs that lined the avenue. It was a hellhole, in short--a miserable, godforsaken stretch of cityscape that deserved to die. And though I'm sure there are people who bemoan the lack of grit and grime in the area now, on Friday night it was difficult not to reflect on how far all those city council battles of yore have brought our humble, once-degenerate downtown.
The occasion for this reminiscence was a performance of All is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914 , at the Pantages Theater, itself a relic of a more innocent era when a certain amount of class and taste in public theaters was the norm. The Pantages isn't as grand as the Orpheum or the State, but it has its own distinctive charm, and a show like All is Calm fits perfectly in its elegant space.
An invention of Theatre Latte Da mastermind Peter Rothstein, All is Calm tells the true story of one of the most remarkable episodes in the history of warfare, a night during the first year of World War I when German and British soldiers laid down their weapons and sang drinking songs and Christmas carols to each other until dawn, then played a spirited game of soccer and buried each other's dead before getting back to the business of killing.
Originally developed last year as a radio play, the show was essentially a staged reading with hardly any stagecraft whatsoever. But it was so well received that this year it re-emerged as a more refined production, albeit one that utilizes only three wooden boxes and a little stage smoke to achieve its haunting, mesmerizing effects. That leaves only voices--of the remarkable nine-man choral ensemble Cantus, and three actors who guide the narrative by reciting verbatim from letters and journals of the soldiers who were there--to tell the story of what happened on that historic night.
The genius of this show lies in its restraint. The soldier/singers wear black coats and the entire stage is black and empty except for a small riser. Director Rothstein could have used bomb sound effects and flashes of light when the soldiers are relating their scenes of wartime, but he doesn't--instead he lets the audience imagine what those bombs sounded like, a technique that pulls the audience into the action in a way that overt, literal depictions of action simply can't.
But it's the voices of the Cantus singers that make most of the magic in this show. Even when they're singing moldy oldies like "Pack up Your Troubles" (in your old kit bag, and smile, smile . . .) or holiday staples like "O Tannenbaum" and "Good King Wencenslas," the arrangements are sophisticated and the execution superb. Cantus' version of "Silent Night" blends German and English lyrics with six-part harmonies to create an almost unbearably sad coda to the events of that night. In fact, the sound Cantus produced on Friday night was so undeniably sacred that, when the show ended, no one in the audience Friday night wanted to be the first to break the spell. We all sat in silence, wondering who would be the first to clap.
Afterward, my wife and I went for a late dinner at R. Normans steakhouse next door, where I ate a delectable bone-in prime rib and washed it down with a glass of J. Lohr Seven Oaks cabernet. All in all, it was an evening that could not have happened on Hennepin Avenue twenty years ago, but can today, largely because we are winning the war on urban decay on Hennepin Ave. Sure, there are still a few lurking insurgents who make it their mission to resist anything that smacks of decency and civilization downtown. But there are fewer of them now than there were, and that in itself if a triumph worth celebrating.
All is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914 continues through Sunday, Dec. 21, at the Pantages Theater, hennepintheatredistrict.org