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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

The House Nutcracker

Or: You’d Better Watch Out

At long last I have found a christmas story that twines about all the pillars of the holiday: the need to indulge in tooth achey sweetness, the rapturous joy of childhood, the importance of loving your family, and grim and violent horror. I’m not kidding about the last one: yuletide was supposed to be a time for fighting back with the soul and spirit against the darkness of the world in winter. The first menorah was kindled in the face of subjection and slavery; the nativity came to be in the midst of a wide sweeping slaughter of infants; Scrooge becomes a good man because he faces eternal damnation if he doesn’t. We are drawn to the fire because there are wolves at the door. Or rats in the walls, which is a great deal more frightening.

The House Theater, liberally adapting E.T.A Hoffmann’s well heeled tale, have created a musical about love and loss and the power of christmas time to illuminate the one and sooth the other. It is a tale told with wit and wisdom, song and dance, a high serving of humor and no small dash of honest to goodness magic.

Our Heroine is Clara (Paige Collins) a young girl excited to help put up her families christmas party and more excited to welcome home her brother Frtiz (Kevin Stangler), a corporal in the United States Marines, from his tour of duty. The party is interrupted with the news that Fritz will not be coming home. Ever. The action jumps to a year later, as darkness settles on Clara’s family. There will be no christmas spirit in this house. Luckily Clara’s Great Uncle Drosselmeyer (Karl Potthoff) bursts in to save christmas, bringing with him a hand carved nutcracker that looks exactly like Fritz. Clara discovers that the Nutcracker transforms into her brother at night and together, with the rest of Clara’s now lively and talkative toys, they set out to bring Christmas back into the house. While their high frolicking adventures play out, Uncle Drosselmeyer has a more difficult time lifting the pall that has numbed and estranged Clara’s parents, David (Benjamin Sprunger) and Martha (Brenda Barrie) after the death of their son. Things take a darker turn when Clara and company are assaulted by a band of rats, bent on keeping the christmas spirit out and paveing the way for the arrival of the Rat King. And this Rat King is not some oversized rodent in a crown and pajamas. It is a thing of nightmares.

The House Theater always impress me with the ease that they accomplish impossible things. From a masterful team of puppeteers, to an at once immobile and rapidly shifting set, even to making Brecht’s alienation effects comfortable to an audience, they can take any theatrical challenge and solve it in a twinkling. Which is not to say the succeeded at everything. The musical numbers, with the exception of the finale (which is really quite moving), need another year or two of refinement and tinkering. It’s not that I don’t think that “fa la la la la la la la” isn’t a honest lyric, just that it has its place and that it’s place isn’t here. But if the singing leaves something to be desired the choreography does not. Director Tommy Rapley has staged a number of light hearted dance numbers, fearsome fights twixt steel and claw, and nimbly walks the tightrope between Clara’s adventures and her parents grief.

Most of the players have done past productions of Milton and Klapperich’s Nutcracker in the past and return to it with the spirit of making it a six week Christmas party of their own. It’s quite dear to see the bonds of friendship that are forged and shared between them. Collins and Stangler are especially fun to watch, an elder brother and little sister at play, both trying to hide their discomfort of the fact that he is made of Douglas Fir. Collins is probably fated to play children to the end of her days, but she does a fine job of feeling her way with one foot in childish fantasy and the other in a world of harsh realities. Clara’s toys, Hugo the robot (Jason Grimm), the french sock Monkey (Johnny Arena) and Phoebe the pull string doll, (Christine Mayland Perkins), who’s really quite bright if you overlook her limited vocabulary, are all delightful as they explore the minutia of their roles.

But as good and lovable and anguished as our heroes are, the real stars of the performance are the Rats. Rats with Cockney Accents ( all rats are British as everyone knows), and trackets, with whiskers and blood-colored glasses and some of the most delicious names like Really Scary Rat (Barrie), Quite Scary Rat (Sprunger) and Really Quite Scary Rat (Potthoff). Their characters, both on the page and in performance captivate my imagination because they are at once so lovable and so terrifying. Barrie and Sprunger will be bantering one minute comparing and pooling the audience on which of their one-liners has the most scare value, and the next minute they’ve disemboweled a major character and are feasting on his flesh. At once devilishly diverting and deadly serious,the rats maybe the House’s greatest trick: characters that are so repulsive and yet who we cheer on and would embrace even with blood on their teeth. They have crowned themselves my favorite christmas villains as yet seen and their triumphant “Yeah! High Four!” shall be set down in my vernacular forever more.

All I can say, music criticism aside, is that if you love good storytelling go see the Nutcracker. If you are awed by technical ingenuity go see the Nutcracker. If you want to rekindle a spark of christmas spirit in your heart go see the Nutcracker. If you want to see an honest drama about death, go see the Nutcracker. And if you need a forcible reminder why the finer feelings of the season are vital to our survival as a species, go see the Nutcracker.

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