BLOG: Small miracles

by Alan M. Berks • Dec. 29

In depth |

Hanukah is a holiday inspired by the miracle that some candle oil which was supposed to be good for only one day actually lasted for eight days. Is that the most disappointing of things to celebrate in the history of religious things to celebrate? If I didn't know that Hanukah had been around at least as long as Christmas, if not longer, I might think that the Jewish people were satirizing it. Even in Judaism—a generally pragmatic, earthbound kind of religion—I can name three better miracles off the top of my head. The one where God has a donkey explain a Torah portion to a Rabbi is one of my personal favorites.

(Of course a Rabbi would give you a wholly more complicated analysis of the miracle of Hanukah—and the talking donkey story while he's at it. As a largely non-practicing Jew and happily inconsistent storyteller, I feel entirely justified in reinterpreting religious theories for my own purposes. I'll deal with my lot on Judgment Day myself, thank you very much.)

Regardless, I freaking love the Hanukah story any way you tell it—not for the eight days of gifts but for the very silly, simple idea of it. We honor this tiny thing, this seemingly inconsequential thing, this small miracle that seems almost too plausible to be a miracle and yet, on a daily basis—especially during a recession—is in some ways most desirable. These days, wouldn't it be miracle enough if my gas and electric bill actually charged me for one-eighth of the gas and electricity I actually needed to heat my home?

I thought of all this after I saw All is Calm, presented by Theatre Latte Da and Cantus, the a cappella male vocal ensemble, at Pantages Theatre before Christmas for the past three years. I thought of Hanukah even though All is Calm is a show whose one and only plot point is that on Christmas in 1914 two warring sides of soldiers in World War I put down their weapons and hung out together.

I'm Jewish, so I supposed that's my frame of reference for the "holiday season" but also-- All is Calm is (like Hanukah, I think) really about a small miracle, a human-sized miracle, an implausible but still entirely possible miracle.

In his director's note, Theatre Latte Da Artistic Director (and All is Calm creator) Peter Rothstein asked, rhetorically, why he hadn't learned of "this remarkable event" in his history class. His answer refers to something about war propaganda, etc., but I think the real reason that we aren't taught of the "Christmas Truce" in school is because it was a miracle that didn't make a difference: end the war, save a life, or change the course of history at all.

Nonetheless, we're undeniably moved by it because of how the experience itself touches our own human nature and what it might say about us. It, like so many other everyday miracles, has no greater effect than the effect it had in the moment on the people who experienced it. (Asking whether this type of amazing event could have pointed a way toward a more complete peace is like asking whether the Hanukah oil could have lasted 14 or 22 or 43 days instead of just 8? In the world we live in, is it worth asking why the implausible isn't differently implausible?)

I'm generally not a fan of a cappella male vocal ensembles like Cantus. I like my music with less harmony and more distortion. And instruments. So when they began the evening with some Christmas Carols, I sank lower into my seat. And, I've grown weary of the actors-reading-letters-from-soldiers play (it's a thing, trust me, I've seen it more than once), which is fundamentally what actors Alan Sorenson, John Catron, and David Roberts are asked to do here.

Yet, once the story gets going, all these potentially portentous elements come together quite beautifully. It helps that the actors are exceptional (their mastery of all the different Irish, Scottish, English, and German dialects is like listening to Cirque Du Soleil of the lips, tongue, and teeth), and even a Sonic Youth fan like me can recognize how impressively talented is Cantus. Peter Rothstein melds the singing and acting and story together into a staging that is surprisingly simple but effectively integrates the actors with the singers in a way that makes you feel as though you really were watching the mingling of two different groups of soldiers between trenches. It's a wonderful marriage of story and style, form and function.

And, most of all, I think that All is Calm is an ideal subject for a play—I think that the best plays are often about the little implausible but possible miracles that occur simply because we're alive and that happened. I sometimes feel as though performing artists, and artists in general, are struggling so hard to be relevant, to have something special to say about something big and important, that we wind up only saying, paradoxically, what everyone else is already saying anyway (whether they're artists or not).

The best performances I've ever experienced, holiday shows or no, are entirely about themselves—and yet, somehow, by being so distinctive, they are surprising. And by being so surprising, they—like Hanukah kind of—fit in so much more naturally, and meaningfully, with the rest of our lives. Their meaning exists simply in the experience. They're little miracles themselves.

When we were looking at all the holiday shows we might discuss in this month's issue, Leah (MinnesotaPlaylist co-founder) noticed that if you simply removed the word Christmas from the subtitle of the show, All is Calm might very easily be produced at any time during the year: "based on real stories from an extraordinary event during the first year of World War I when men from opposing forces on the Western front laid down their arms in a spontaneous truce."

And, in an ideal world, people make a place for small miracles like these every weekend, and All is Calm would sell an equal number of tickets whether it was performed in December or September. In the world we do live in now, however, I think people have to be looking for miracles before they actually decide to come and enjoy some live theater.

The holiday season opens people to small miracles in a lot of ways and one way that most people don't often allow ourselves to experience the rest of the year is best delivered by live performance like All is Calm.