House Theatre of Chicago updates ‘Nutcracker’ with non-traditional gender-swapping

For the show’s 10th anniversary, the creative team is further stretching boundaries of an already original take on the classic production: The family at the heart of the show is now headed by gay fathers, and Uncle Drosselmeyer is an aunt.

SHARE House Theatre of Chicago updates ‘Nutcracker’ with non-traditional gender-swapping
The House Theatre of Chicago’s ballet-free production of “The Nutcracker.”

The House Theatre of Chicago’s ballet-free production of “The Nutcracker” asks the audience to invest their hearts in a deeply emotional story.

Michael Brosilow

The House Theatre of Chicago’s ballet-free production of “The Nutcracker” has been non-traditional from the get-go, incorporating original musical numbers and puppetry as well as leaning into darker elements of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story.

For the show’s 10th anniversary, the creative team is further stretching boundaries: The family at the heart of the show is now headed by gay fathers, and Uncle Drosselmeyer is an aunt.

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The House Theatre of Chicago — ‘The Nutcracker’

When: Through Dec. 29

Where: Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division

Tickets: $20-$50

Info: www.thehousetheatre.com


“I was excited to challenge the material by doing some gender-swapping,” said Tommy Rapley, the show’s director, choreographer and co-adaptor. “I wanted to see if these roles that we wrote could transcend family structure.”

As a gay man himself, Rapley said it was important to have all types of families reflected onstage, something that wasn’t necessarily an option when The House Theatre penned its initial adaptation.

“We wrote [the family] as a straight couple. That was 2007, there wasn’t gay marriage,” he said.

Once he changed the role of mom Martha to dad Marty (played by Benjamin Sprunger), Rapley realized he’d created an imbalance in the cast, which led to the Drosselmeyer switch. Amanda de la Guardia, who’s played Martha in past productions, now tackles the part of the aunt who gifts the Nutcracker to Clara (Amaris Sanchez).

“It’s been illuminating in ways I didn’t imagine. I thought of him [Drosselmeyer] as a gruff military man. To watch Amanda come onstage, she brings the same gravitas but it changes the relationship with Clara. It’s warmer,” Rapley said. “It’s been a really fun journey to get to see a different side to the characters.”

The production’s giant Rat King puppet has also been given a makeover, coming closer to Hoffmann’s vision of a seven-headed, seven-tailed, sword-wielding monster. Given that the show is performed in the round, there’s nowhere for the rat’s three operators to hide, nor the puppeteers behind other characters, created in partnership with Chicago Puppet Studio.

“It really requires the audience to invest their imagination,” said Rapley.

The House’s “Nutcracker” also asks the audience to invest their hearts in a deeply emotional story, descriptors not typically associated with the ballet, Ripley said.

“I danced in it for 15 years, and I couldn’t have told you what it was about,” said Rapley, a former ballet dancer who also choreographs the Goodman Theatre’s “A Christmas Carol.”

In a significant departure from the source material, The House centers its narrative on a family grieving the death of Fritz, the ballet’s bratty little brother transformed here into Clara’s adored older sibling, the family’s golden boy.

“Fritz is a soldier, and he loses his life. The show starts with a good punch to the heart,” Rapley said, a punch magnified by the fact that the Nutcracker looks like Fritz.

The show, Rapley said, acknowledges that while the holiday season is supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year, for many people it’s when the loss of loved ones is felt the most acutely. The House uses the framework of a fantastical tale to illuminate the breadth of human experience — joy, love and tragedy — and to provide a space for people to laugh and cry together.

The House’s original “Nutcracker” script — written by Rapley and company members Jake Minton, Phillip Klapperich and Kevin O’Donnell — wallowed a bit too much in the material’s darkness though, Rapley said. A retooled version, which the troupe has mounted at Chopin Theatre since 2009, ends on a hopeful note, with Clara saving Christmas.

The show saved Rapley’s own family the year his namesake Aunt Tommy died. “My mom had kind of sworn off Christmas that year. My Aunt Tommy, she was our family Santa Claus,” he said.

After seeing “The Nutcracker,” his mom decided to pull out her sister’s Christmas ornaments in tribute to her life and spirit.

“That’s what this play’s intended to do,” Rapley said.

With the show celebrating a significant milestone, Rapley is gratified to see the relationship the show has built with audience members, many of whom return year after year.

“I feel fortunate to work on something that’s a gift to our community,” he said.

Patty Wetli is a local freelance writer.

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