The House Theatre's Nutcracker Review - Magic, Wonder, & Spirit at the Chopin

Last Friday evening I broke tradition: I started in on the Christmas Spirit before my favourite holiday,Thanksgiving. Normally, I consider that a sacrilegious, preemptive strike on what can be the most nauseating point of the year; however, The House Theatre’s adaptation of The Nutcracker, sensationally directed and choreographed by Tommy Rapley, tickled my fussy inner child to excitement. It captured the magic I felt the first time I saw and danced in the classical ballet version, as one of Clara’s friends in the Party Scene. It took me back, and radiated a familial warmth that touched every audience member - within the first 60 seconds I was having a blast. Many theatre companies boast and promise that grant hungry word, “Community”, but Rapley’s Nutcracker successfully connected the audience in a shared, joyous experience.

Clara and her toys make Martha's Famous Sugar Plum Cookies

This version focuses primarily on Clara (Jaclyn Hennell) and her family, without travelling to the ballet’s Land of Sweets. The opening number whisks us into the party, where Clara and her family build up the holiday spirit and await the return of her brother, Fritz (Shaun Baer). Guests enter through the surrounding audience with a flurry of snow, adding to the lively movement section, ramping the party and the anticipation up to a full swing. Tragedy strikes, and the warm spirit of Christmas vanishes. A year later, her Uncle Drosselmeyer (Karl Potthoff) returns to wake the family from mourning with the gift a Nutcracker, made as an effigy of Fritz. Clara, with the help of Fritz and her other toys, must battle the Rat King and her family’s grief to save Christmas. And it was those simple themes, inner light versus inner darkness, overcoming the tragedies of life with magic and hope, that advance this story from spectacle to a true play. Rapley’s direction, Jake Minton and Phillip Klapperich’s writing, and the whole cast successfully kept one foot in the real, and one foot in the fantastical.

Ericka Ratcliff as the Really Scary Rat (L) and Martha (R)

The ensemble balanced pace, emotional quality, and theatricality, zipping through flashy sequences and silly battle scenes with energy while wading through the poignant complexity . Clara’s Monkey (Michael E Smith) and her robot Hugo (Andrew Lund) fully embodied those toy characters with clownish timing and physicality. Ericka Ratcliff, double casted as Clara’s mother Martha and the Really Scary Rat (a henchman of the Rat King’s) shines brightest in this production - I could have watched her the whole show. Impish and fumbling as the evil rat, but so damn truthful as Martha - her pain, and her sorrow, and her ability to find and allow joy again is a tertiary journey in this piece but so satisfying. I found Karl Potthoff’s take on the mysterious and kind hearted Drosselmeyer a little sketchier and off-putting than he should be, but he often redeemed himself. Hennell’s Clara was tough: she issued a lovely childlike determination and apt wit in dialogue, however, I had no idea how old she was supposed to be or playing. This is important of our understanding whose experience we are adventuring through, and she ranged anywhere from 8 years old to whatever age the actress is. Also, I didn’t find Clara or Fritz’s solos to be worth their merit in musicality, advancing the story, or performance, and I would go so far to say take out the solos all together. It took me out of the moment, and their relationship. When Fritz sings a ballad to Clara that’s an obvious Christmas Carol reference, it did not bring them closer together, but kept me waiting for that notion of community again. The company songs were what the show was about, reanimating a family, and when the company sang together, it achieved that.


Hennell and Baer as Clara and Fritz.

Across the board, the design was beautiful: Collete Pollard’s set surprised with simple but effective magic,  and Lee Keenan’s lighting ranged from deliciously warm to rancid and frigid with each emotional turn. Debbie Baer's costumes were really spectacular for most: Drosselmeyer’s luxurious textures and colours reflected his bon vivant lifestyle and the Rats were perfectly seedy - but it was, again, Clara’s very young dress in contrast with her sometimes adult performance which caused a rift. But whoever that props/puppetmaster was (unlisted in the program), did some really lovely and nasty work on those rat puppets, they earned every ounce of their build up. All of this under the stunning direction and choreography of Rapley. He brought a lot of light and heavy heart to this play and did my favourite thing in theatre: allowing silent, physical communication to play out. In moments of debilitating sorrow, of youthful exploration, of introspective realization I saw this play breathing, working through the physical and earning all the time that they took. And all the movement was the perfect style, composition, and execution for those bodies, and I believed it: I was in that world, I understood the fantastical rules, and I was hooked. I can very easily say he goes on my roster of “directors-I’ll-see-the-play-for”.

The Rat King sneaking up on Clara

Real Talk: If you want to savour the spice and sweetness of the season, but not suffer a ripping sugar overdose, come see this show: the combination of magic and heart will delight the child at the core of every viewer.

The Nutcracker runs now until December 28, Thursday to Saturday at 7:30pm, Sunday at 7:00pm, and Saturday and Sunday matinees at 3pm at the Chopin Upstairs Theater, 1543 W Division St, Chicago, IL 60642. For ticketing or more information, visit the House Theatre website



Photos: Courtesy of The House Theatre

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