The House Theatre playfully evokes nostalgia with ‘The Nutcracker’

Magic brings Clara’s toys to life, and they venture to the kitchen to make the Christmas cookies. From left: Michael E Smith as Monkey, Shaun Baer as Fritz, Jaclyn Hennell as Clara, Andrew Lund as Hugo, and Krystal Worrell as Phoebe. (Photo courtesy of Michael Brosilow)
Magic brings Clara’s toys to life, and they venture to the kitchen to make the Christmas cookies.
From left: Michael E Smith as Monkey, Shaun Baer as Fritz, Jaclyn Hennell as Clara, Andrew Lund as Hugo, and Krystal Worrell as Phoebe. (Photo courtesy of Michael Brosilow)

The House Theatre of Chicago presents its fifth year of their holiday classic, “The Nutcracker,” at the Chopin Theater. The production opened for preview Nov. 6-13, officially opening Friday, Nov.14, and it runs through Dec. 28.

“The Nutcracker” is an adaptation of a story written in 1816 by E.T.A. Hoffman titled “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.” In Hoffman’s edition, the story begins on Christmas Eve when Clara, named Marie in his piece, and Fritz notice the new family nutcracker. However, it was Alexandre Dumas’ version that gave way to the iconic ballet. The House Company’s “The Nutcracker” was written by Jake Minton and Phillip Klapperich; composed by Kevin O’Donnell; and, directed and choreographed by Tommy Rapley.

Entering the tight-knit seating areas, playgoers feel like part of the production with the 360-degree stage side seating. Before the show started, the cast mingled amid the crowd encouraging people to sit as close as possible, as Andrew Lund danced clad in head-to-toe Christmas plaid.

The opening scene was a confusing concoction of loud noises, over exaggerated cheer and swift movements. But it quickly was put into context as the chaos of family coming together during holidays. The cheer halted, however, when Martha (Ericka Ratcliff) and David (Paul Fagen) found out their son Fritz (Shaun Baer), whose arrival they were anticipating, was killed in combat. Their annual Christmas celebration, complete with Martha’s sugar plum cookies, was instantly dismantled eliminating any evidence.

Clara (Jaclyn Hennell), sad about the absence of Fritz and Christmas, receives a nutcracker made in the image of her late brother from Uncle Drosselmeyer (Karl Potthoff), which changes the fate of the entire family. Alongside her toys Monkey (Michael E. Smith), Phoebe the Babydoll (Krystal Worrell), and Hugo the Robot (Andrew Lund) — who all come alive — Clara sets out to bring Christmas back. During their quest, they run into a Really Scary Rat (Ericka Ratcliff), Quite Scary Rat (Paul Fagen), and a Really Quite Scary Rat (Karl Potthoff) that fight them to keep away the Christmas cheer, preferring the darkness over the holiday light.

The special effects were so realistic, I clutched the arms of my chair when the lights went out, the walls opened, and the Rat King, a massive floating rat head with glowing red eyes, entered. Clara, having entered the walls to save Fritz and the toys, takes on the Rat King, who tries to convince her that she should stay inside the walls and that there was nothing to fear, for “the light only forces you to see the truth.”

In the end, Clara brings light to Christmas, not by way of decorations, but in recognizing what the holidays are really about—not Christmas trees and gifts, contrary to popular belief. Through Uncle Drosselmeyer’s Christmas magic, Clara’s family learned to be happy for what and who they had, opposed to dwelling on what they were missing.

This rendition taps into the nostalgic memories of family gatherings during the holiday seasons, and the emotions endured having to gather in a late members’ absence. However, it still evoked a childlike feeling among the adults in attendance, which after a few bourbons was impossible to contain. Some playgoers found themselves unable to resist playing with the artificial snow during intermission, as they hit the floor making snow angels, throwing wads at each other, and taking photos for their social media accounts — all while the cleanup crew was attempting to sweep it up.

In the words of the nutcracker manikin near the theater entrance, “Magic is real at the House”, and I sincerely recommend this wizardry to all, even a Christmas Grinch.