War is sadly, part of human nature with a long history of territorial destruction demonstrating its firm grip on our species. Luckily for us, compassion and bravery are also part of our nature, proving time and time again that there is good in us despite the bad we can’t seem to permanently escape. These traits, the tragic and the restorative, are explored and celebrated in City Lights Theater Company’s latest production and World Premiere, Truce: A Christmas Wish from the Great War. This locally commissioned and written piece will move people (it already has), especially those with military ties and it’s certainly an alternative to the traditional holiday entertainment option. It’s also an important story to remember and to tell, and I commend the City Lights team for taking on such a task. Truce has some unbelievably beautiful visuals brought to you by the direction, cast and the astounding technical team. The set and lights are stunning (as well as functional) and the sound is top-notch in setting and transitioning mood. There’s a respectable roster of talent that also deliver some powerful moments, however… despite all the obvious talent surrounding this production and some strong moments, I felt there were just too many missed opportunities, too many details left dangling, and ultimately too many holes shot though the fabric of this play to leave me with much more than a glimpse into its real potential. It was almost as if every opportunity to feel for or bond with these characters was ambushed by some polarizing technique that instead resulted in distancing me from caring. I was left “fighting” to understand and consequently to feel for many of these characters.
One of the most prominent structural tactics that seemed to go astray for me was the use of German in a scene where two Germans were speaking to each other. Having dialogue in German or German words sporadically spoken didn’t seem to serve a purpose other than to draw attention to the language. I think we understand that if two German characters are speaking, they are “speaking German to each other” even though we understand them as English speakers. We can identify the Germans by their uniforms, accents and in some cases even the narration and exposition, so it doesn’t seem needed or even beneficial from a style standpoint. The language creates a barrier instead of bringing us fully into the moment and allowing us to listen to the words and connect with the characters. Plus, if you don’t happen to be able to understand German, you miss one of the most poetic lines in the entire play spoken by the nurse. Except in the case of the truce trench scene, where it serves as demonstration of the language barrier (and does so wonderfully), I found it to be a painful choice. I felt less for those characters during those scenes because of the language used than I did for the audience, knowing what they were missing as I accessed my own language archive of German lodged deep in the recesses of my brain.
Admittedly, I am a linear plot kind of person. I find flashbacks and flash forwards to be a bit disruptive to the process of getting to know a character and building empathy for them in more cases than not. With a timeline change and no “cue” if you will, I’m forced into orientation, solution or prediction mode instead of staying in the moment. There were several transitions that created confusion with the timeline and again, presented just one more hindrance into getting fully sucked into the hearts and souls of these boys; BOYS that were fighting a man’s war.
There were a number of carols inserted into this play too, and while yes, it is Christmas, and yes they were arranged and sung well, they felt forced, extraneous and detrimental to the pacing. We know its Christmas time, there’s never any doubt that it is, and again, aside from the marvelous truce scene in the trench, to me these songs were just another thing that took the spotlight off the main focus. This moment in time. These boys. This horrific war. Yes, it affects their families, but the far more interesting story (and, again I must stress, one that is captured very well in the truce trench scene) is how these boys came to rebel and change the rules. How they found real peace in the most unrestful of places for a few miraculous hours. What gave them the idea and the courage to defy orders that came with such serious consequences? How they leveled a playing field…or the battlefield, if only for a flash, where money, political alliances and the most advanced weaponry could not.
There were a number of smaller things that got overlooked, but felt big for me too on the production side. For example, mentioning how cold it is, and yet the blankets they have (and body language) not fully being used to communicate that cold. While no history buff, I do remember hearing that you’d never take your shoes off, never risk getting your socks wet for risk of foot rot, and you’d never light a cigarette in the trench, which would allow the opposition to see your location and thus aim directly for you. The penalties for these actions didn’t seem to line up consistently in the play and so some of the momentum, some of the reality, was sabotaged by avoidable factual oversights.
Essentially I “waited” an hour to see the most pivotal, well written scene of the play (which really lets some core members of the cast shine for a compelling, cohesive 20 minutes or so) but, during that hour build, the time is used to enforce prejudice and fails to show any significant arc for several of the characters. War changes you. As demonstrated by the number of warriors that come back with PTSD and similar afflictions, I do not feel that any generation, any nationality is immune to the fear, doubt, pain and grief of war. I don’t think you can watch people die and not be affected in some way, immediately. War is not made easier by patriotism or a strong sense of duty. I do not believe that just because you feel you are doing the right thing (or you have no alternative) that loss of life or combat is any less difficult, frightening or painful. Not before, certainly not during and not after. To express otherwise, to find sport in war, especially when that specific opinion is presented in a somewhat stereotypical manner, was off turning. While surely the goal was to present a different “argument” or “perspective” and enlighten or even unite us by seeing the real commonalities of these boys despite their national affiliation, I felt like certain text was more likely encouraging the audience to a pick side (and the obvious one at that.) So, very little changes with these characters, and that which does, does so with some very abrupt, seemingly rushed and/or awkwardly placed realizations playing catalyst. As an audience member (who was totally predisposed to feel greatly for this piece) I was presented with too many “things” that prevented me getting attached to the characters and thus nothing changed in me either. Had it been clear that I was seeing shock or even pre-programmed brainwashing instead of logically argued opinion, I might have felt differently. Had it been coming from an “unexpected side” maybe that would have been enough. As it was, too large of a wall to scale. Too big a bullet to dodge.
Unfortunately, most of the journey for me seemed far too fact heavy, too device driven and too overly dramatic, things that ultimately undermined the beautiful (and already dramatic) story at the core of the piece. About the only thing I felt strongly about at the end was that the production would have been far more successful with some additional attention to details and script consideration. Suffice to say, I wish the experience had gone differently for me. A charitable 3 out of 5 jewels in the review tiara for a play that missed the mark for me structurally despite a strong army of talent poised to deliver. Truce: A Christmas Wish from the Great War plays through December 21st at City Lights Theatre in Downtown San Jose.