Pictured: Rachel Shapiro | Photo by Michael Brosilow
by Conor McShane
I’m one of those people that, if I had my druthers, wouldn’t start thinking about Christmas until the day after Thanksgiving at the very earliest. While I wouldn’t consider myself a Grinch (before his heart grew three sizes, that is), sitting in the seats of the Chopin theatre surrounded by Christmas decorations and an upbeat soundtrack of holiday music, I initially found it a challenge to get in the spirit midway through November. Luckily, the House Theatre’s annual production of THE NUTCRACKER, currently celebrating its tenth anniversary, had enough cheer and goodwill, spiced with a dose of melancholy, to win me over.
Originally created by House company members Jake Minton, Phillip Klapperich, Kevin O’Donnell, and Tommy Rapley in 2009, the show has become a tradition for those who like their holiday entertainment with plenty of spirit but a little less spectacle than your typical big-budget production. Based on the 1816 short story by Prussian author E.T.A. Hoffmann, it was famously adapted into a ballet by Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky in 1892, which has become an inescapable holiday staple in its own right.
The House’s vision of THE NUTCRACKER is a little weirder, a little sillier, and with a few more puppets, but its smaller-scale approach makes its emotional core that much more affecting. The play begins with a spirited pantomime, as young Clara (Amaris Sanchez) and her pop Marty (Benjamin Sprunger) and dad David (Nicholas Bailey) have a Christmas soiree with their Aunt Drosselmeyer (Amanda de la Guardia) and several guests. They’re awaiting the arrival of their son Fritz (Dwayne Everett), a soldier who’s finally able to come home for Christmas. But Fritz doesn’t make it home, and a fellow soldier delivers a folded-up flag in his place.
Fast forward a year, and Christmas cheer is in short supply. Drosselmeyer drops in unannounced for the Christmas party that Marty and David planned to skip that year, bringing a nutcracker in the visage of Fritz as a gift for Clara. A short transition and some magic later, the nutcracker comes to life, alongside Clara’s other toys Hugo (Colin Morgan), Marcel (Johnny Arena), and Phoebe (Rachel Sapiro). It’s up to the five of them to save Christmas from the encroaching darkness represented by the rats (Sprunger, Bailey, and de la Guardia again), who live in the walls of the house and generally hate Christmas and all it stands for. It’s a bit of a wacky fable, and the cast really leans into the wackiness, with broad bits of physical comedy and lampshade-hanging meta moments (“That’s called a sight gag!” Hugo cheerily explains after one giggle-worthy moment).
Evaluating a decade-running holiday show for its story and technical elements seems a bit unnecessary at this point, but what makes THE NUTCRACKER’S high cheer quotient go down smoothly is its undercurrent of melancholy. While Nutcracker Fritz makes a good temporary stand-in for the real thing, the play makes it clear that ultimately, he’s a wooden replica. His arms come off and get reattached with little difficulty, and he’s essentially impervious to death. In other words, he’s the perfect idealized fantasy for a grieving family; he’ll never die, never grow old, never miss a Christmas. Initially, Marty and David don’t want to open the wound of Fritz’s death, but that’s impossible, especially around the holidays.
The holidays can be a challenging time of year for a lot of people. The relentless good cheer surrounding the season can often make our losses feel that much more acute, no matter how much time has passed. As families gather, you begin to feel the absence of lost loved ones, and the first Christmas spent without someone who recently passed can be hard to bear. We know we’re supposed to feel happy, and our sorrow is only more evident because we don’t. THE NUTCRACKER is smart to acknowledge this aspect of the season; where most holiday entertainment tries its hardest to make us forget about the hardship and loss that exists underneath the most wonderful time of the year, the play reminds us that for many of us, loss is as baked into the season as sugar plum cookies.
But the show doesn’t dwell too much on that, instead letting it coexist alongside the fun and adventure. The cast, as directed by Tommy Rapley, handles these tonal shifts well, and their ceaseless energy is impressive to behold. The holiday magic is amplified by Collette Pollard’s set, complete with a few surprises, Jerica Hucke’s costume design, and the ace musicians as led by music director Jon Schneidman. Chicago Puppet Studio’s puppets, while used somewhat sparingly, are the right mix of hilarious and terrifying. It all adds up to a fun show that delivers the emotional and theatrical goods.
Strangely enough, one of the most indelible moments in THE NUTCRACKER came not during the show itself, but during the intermission, where cast members interact with kids in the audience, dancing and chasing and keeping the cheer alive while the adults get refills. Watching these kids, for whom the barrier between performer and character is still fluid, get invited into the play’s world was a wonderful thing to behold. While holiday cheer can be harder to muster as an adult, the kids in the room serve as an important reminder that the season still has some magic left in it.