House Theatre’s NUTCRACKER Offers Optimistic Distraction

House Theatre’s NUTCRACKER Offers Optimistic Distraction

(l-r) Amanda de la Guardia, Rachel Shapiro, Ian Maryfield, Ariana Burks, Joey Steakley, and  Desmond Gray. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

I moved away from Chicago before the non-ballet version of THE NUTRACKER became as popular as pistachios. Admittedly, before seeing it, due to my uncracked Grinch-like bias, I dreaded watching another charming Christmas play; however, after a few nutty weeks in Chicago this play provides a possible distraction.

For seven holiday seasons The House Theatre Company has mounted a musical based on the E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story The Nutcracker and the Mouse. This entrancing adaption—written by Phillip Klapperich and Jake Minton—simultaneously evokes smiles, tears, mirth and cringes. Plus, they have puppets.

In a nutshell, young Clara endeavors to celebrate Christmas while grieving her dead brother Fritz when he returns to her as a magic nutcracker who comes to life. With his help—and her other toys—she bravely battles the Rat King and saves her family from darkness. Think more Pixar and less Tchaikovsky.

The entire enchanting ensemble presents powerful performances. Notably, Clara (Ariana Burks) necromantically navigates the spectrum of sorrow to sanguineness—dark to light—bound by a boldness beyond her years. Also riveting were the toys— the doll Phoebe (Rachel Shapiro), the sock puppet Monkey (Ian Maryfield) and the robot Hugo (Joey Streakley)— each adopt physical and vocal attributes amounting to an astounding anthropomorphic effect while providing some show-stealing comic relief.   

In this theatre in the round production, Tommy Rapley’s direction and choreography provides perfect pacing while exploiting every inch of space. Most markedly, the high-energy song “Let’s Make Cookies” which includes what can be summed up as a frolicking food fight.  

The thaumaturgical design elements are spellbindingly stylized. For example, costume designer Debbie Baer’s must be applauded for her attention to detail and creativity including giving the rats red glasses conjuring red-beady eyes.  

We all battle Rat Kings. Maybe an orange faced president-elect. Maybe a woman known for her pantsuits. Maybe your boss. Or maybe your family. As 2016 ends it looks like they are winning; thus, we might seek soothing or an outlet for escape. Magically, THE NUTCRACKER offers optimism.

The House Theatre of Chicago’s THE NUTCRACKER created by Jake Minton, Phillip Klapperich, Kevin O’Donnell, and Tommy Rapley
based on the story by E.T.A.Hoffmann. Now playing through December 30.
To purchase tickets visit or by phone at 773.769.3832.

About author

Alyssa Dyksterhouse

With a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Dramaturgy/Dramatic Criticism, Alyssa Dyksterhouse has over 20 years of professional theater experience. She recently returned from the living in the Pacific Northwest where she wrote about arts and culture for Seattle Weekly and Seattle Gay Scene.