"There are nine Nutcrackers playing in Chicago this year," the guy in the hotel lobby told us as we headed out Sunday afternoon into blizzard conditions to catch House Theater's version of E.T.A. Hoffman's timeless story. After seeing their generous and intimate, laugh-out-loud funny and very moving production, I can't imagine a plummier one in the bunch.
This is the third production I've seen from House, after a terrific Terrible Tragedy of Peter Pan and the magical Sparrow and I've always loved the inventive style and heart I see on stage. You can always count on great music, too.
In this Nutcracker, Clara's beloved older brother Fritz joins forces with her to defeat the Mouse King, work through a terrible loss and restore a grieving family back to Christmas joy. Clara and Fritz have the help of a very funny trio of toys come to life - a flirty French Sock Monkey, Hugo the nerdy Robot and Phoebe the Doll whose placid smile almost hides the wisdom in her inane pronouncements. "I'm afraid of the dark!" says Dolly and the line takes on special resonance when the red-eyed Mouse King puppets appear (just scary enough for our five and eight year olds.)
Randy and the girls and I have been to enough theater billing itself as family fare to know it often translates to kiddy dross. In this beautiful production, the laughs don't pander and the truths aren't sugarcoated. Only half the matinee audience around us had children with them - this is a show rich with ideas and pleasures for adults, too.
The script by Phillip Klapperich and Jack Minton, who also takes the stage as Clara's father, plays with the many meanings of light and darkness, with the pains of truth and protective artifice. The nutcracker no longer seems a random choice of a toy for Clara's gift from Uncle Drosselmeyer, since Minton and Klapperich explore its metaphorical possibilities. Like our plucky heroine, Clara, we're reminded that wounds never heal properly without pain and finding the mysteries within the hardest shells takes great strength.
One of those tantalizing mysteries is personified by the loving Uncle Drosselmeyer played by the mesmerizing Blake Montgomery. Did he play a part in Fritz's death? Why did he allow Clara to cut down the Christmas tree? Does he perpetuate her childhood fantasies to her detriment?
"Tell her about the magic," urges Clara's mother (an utterly watchable Carolyn Defrin.) Drosselmeyer replies, "Alright. Clara, the magic is real." It's funny how our culture has turned Christmas into a holiday constructed around secrets and deceit about magic; The Nutcracker at House creates a Christmas on stage where the hardships of inevitable reality become bearable with the comfort of others to help you through.