December 16, 2015

A Holiday Fable in "Our Friends the Enemy"

Who doesn't love a good Christmas fable?  And over the past decade or so, one of the most popular has become the story of the impromptu cease fires that sprung up between British and German soldiers on the front lines in 1914. These Christmas Truces, as they're now known, have inspired a legion of books, movies and songs (click here to listen to one).

And now that we're in the midst of the centenary of the Great War and anxiety that ISIS may force us into another, they've been the subject of shows that have played during the New York holiday season. Last year brought the musical play In Fields Where They Lay, which I didn't see but wish I had because I heard good things about it. And now running in the small Lion Theatre at Theatre Row through Dec. 20 is the one-man show Our Friends the Enemy.

World War I, which would devastate a generation of European men before it finally ended in 1918, was just five months old during its first Christmas season and enmities hadn't yet hardened. And so when the Brits overhead the Germans singing Christmas carols on the other side of the battlefield, they joined in.

Soon after, white flags were waved, the troops agreed that each could collect and bury their dead. They shared food, exchanged stories about their families and in some cases, played soccer. But a few days later, they retreated to their trenches and began again to kill one another.

Alex Gwyther, a fresh-faced Brit, wrote and performs Our Friends the Enemy, which looks at the events of the truce through the eyes of one British private who chronicles the monotonous chores and futile attempts to hold off fear that form the daily routine of his platoon, the series of unexpected events that lead to the truce in his corner of the war and the tragic way in which the respite unravels.

Straightforwardly directed by Tom O'Brien, the narrative unfolds in just 55 minutes. The story rolls along in predictable fashion but Gwyther is charming and the audience at the performance I attended sat rapt. Unlike me, most also stayed behind for a talkback about the show, perhaps hoping they might find an answer to the eternal question of why it is so hard to have peace on earth.

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