About 10 minutes into The House Theatre of Chicago’s surprising production of The Nutcracker, things take an unexpected (and very much welcomed) turn. The show opens with jovial charm and spirited energy, accompanied by singing, dancing and general merriment. Always a perpetual Scrooge, it was a bit overwhelming for me, and I thought, “Hell, if the entire evening’s gonna be *this*, I’m SOL.”
But then, this family, who’s celebrating the return of their beloved Fritz, gets some sobering news. The festivities grind to a breathtaking halt. The family grieves, and the holidays are put on hold. A year passes and the family remains inert. Uncle Drosselmeyer (David Catlin) arrives, unannounced, to force his sister, brother-in-law and young niece Clara (a rambunctious Briana DiGiulio) to reopen the wound and heal properly so Christmas can continue. And he uses the young Clara’s vivid imagination as his plan’s vessel.
In this brave adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story by House Theatre company members Phillip C. Klapperich and Jake Minton, real human emotion and an uncompromising examination of the grieving process take center stage. Clara’s magical thinking comes into question: do her escapes into fantasy land with her toys — including a soldier nutcracker that she believes embodies her dead brother — help or harm? Is pretending her dead brother’s alive in doll form any healthier than her parents’ coping mechanism, which is to simply ignore it?
Heady stuff. And just when you think things can’t get any more intense, Clara dives into the darkness to face The Rat King — actually a metaphor for facing one’s inner fears, but literally depicted on House’s stage via amazing special effects and puppetry (designed by Allison Daniel).
But, don’t worry: the ending is hopeful and quite happy.
Will kids like it? Based on the reactions of the two toddlers sitting in front of me, they’ll certainly have many questions. If you haven’t talked with your kids about the concepts of death and grieving, they might be confused. But there’s also dancing and laughter and music and lots of fake snow for them to play in at intermission, so that may be enough to capture their imaginations through the more somber (read: squirmy) moments.
Did I like it? House’s production has received rave reviews and a strong following since its debut in 2007. This remount, directed and choreographed by Tommy Rapley, was my first exposure, and I’m not entirely sure it lived up to the hype for me. While I greatly admired the effort, the thing feels excessively frantic and everyone YELLS THEIR LINES, so it’s a bit headache inducing. Also, the use of live music (accompanied by a small but full-sounding band) is a lovely idea, but the meandering tunes and pedestrian lyrics (both by Kevin O’Donnell) don’t match the creative level set by the rest of the production.
That said, the imagination and energy on the stage is outstanding, and the audience seemed captivated. I’d recommend it as a charmingly complex alternative to the sugary sweetness most theatre is steeped in this time of year.
“The Nutcracker” plays through December 30 at The Chopin Theatre. More information here >