If you were to tell the average person on the street that your favorite stage version of “The Nutcracker” featured neither ballet nor the iconic Tchaikovsky score, they’d think you were an insufferable hipster at best — and perhaps totally deranged at worst. But such a person would clearly have missed the heartfelt wonder that is The House Theatre of Chicago’s 10th anniversary production of “The Nutcracker,” based on E.T.A. Hoffmann’s dark and magical tale. So tell them: Go see it. You’ll thank me later.
Whereas most holiday entertainment opts for being light and disposable, this version of “The Nutcracker” heads in the opposite direction. As one character puts it, the gobs of colorful, twinkling lights that embody the holiday season serve to brighten up what would otherwise be the darkest time of year, and “The Nutcracker” is interested in what lurks inside that darkness. Spoiler: it’s more than just rats (but also: lots of rats). The fight to save Christmas is a common theme in holiday stories, but rarely does it feel so genuinely imperiled as it does here. What’s thwarting it? Grief.
Created by House Theatre company members Jake Minton, Phillip Klapperich, Kevin O’Donnell and Tommy Rapley (who also directs and choreographs), “The Nutcracker” opens with a Christmas party foiled, as young Clara (a delightful Amaris Sanchez) and her parents learn that her brother, Fritz (Dwayne Everett), is not coming home for Christmas. In his place is a solemn man in army threads bearing a triangle-folded flag. The following year, there is no party and barely any sign of Christmas in Clara’s home. At least not until her mischievous great-aunt Drosselmeyer (Amanda de la Guardia) arrives.
Drosselmeyer gives Clara a nutcracker that is carved to look exactly like her brother. That night, Nutcracker Fritz comes to life — as do the rest of Clara’s toys: Phoebe the doll (Rachel Shapiro), Hugo the robot (Colin Morgan), and Marcel the … sock monkey (Johnny Arena). Together the fearsome fivesome set out to bring Christmas back by making cookies, chopping down a fir tree, and battling the nasty swarm of rats (led by a legit terrifying Rat King) that seek to snuff Christmas out once and for all. Meanwhile, their mission also serves to get Clara and her parents, Marty (Benjamin Sprunger) and David (Nicholas Bailey), to finally accept and move on from Fritz’s death — the effect is like Pixar staging a hostile takeover of “Ordinary People”.
For this tenth anniversary production, The House has made some marvelously timely updates: Clara’s parents are now a gay couple (both Sprunger and Bailey played David in previous years) while Drosselmeyer is now an aunt (de la Guardia has previously played the mother character, Martha). All three actors are wonderful in their roles — and in their dual turns as the dastardly (and very British) rats. Sprunger’s Marty especially exudes a brittle fragility masquerading as strength, while de LaGuardia’s Drosselmeyer has that perfect twinkle in her eye. Meanwhile, Shapiro, Morgan and Arena make for a crack comedic trio as Clara’s toys.
The House has also introduced a new Rat King puppet which is … more of a mixed bag. It’s smaller and far more mobile, but lacks the sheer scale that made the original so terrifying. Then again, this new version should still make for potent nightmare fuel. Parents, enjoy!
Alex Huntsberger is a local freelance writer.