Where: The House Theatre of Chicago at Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division St.
When: through Dec. 30
Anyone who is familiar with The House Theatre of Chicago won’t be surprised to learn that the iconoclastic company’s version of “The Nutcracker” is nothing like the ballet.
Based on E.T.A. Hoffmann‘s story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse,” the play by ensemble members Jake Minton and Phillip Klapperich, with music by Kevin O’Donnell and lyrics by Minton, is ostensibly about Clara’s (a winsome Paige Collins) efforts to “save Christmas” but really deals with how she comes to terms with the death of her soldier brother, Fritz (Kevin Stangler), and helps her parents, David (Benjamin Sprunger) and Martha (Brenda Barrie), do the same.
The difficulty of exploring this important theme in what’s billed as a family-friendly holiday show is finding the right balance of serious and comic. Now in its fourth annual outing (with some changes), “The Nutcracker” never quite does that. Instead it careens between incredibly sophomoric and disturbingly dark, thanks to a script laden with lame dialogue, less-than-memorable songs and Tommy Rapley’s chaotic and noisy direction and choreography.
Every time the Nutcracker doll of Fritz, a gift from Uncle Drosselmeyer (Loren Lazerine), comes to life to help Clara out, along with her other toys — Monkey (Johnny Arena), Phoebe (Christine Perkins), and Hugo (Brandon Ruiter) — we know we’re in for a running-around-screaming romp seemingly geared to five-year-olds. These scenes include an excruciating and messy take on baking cookies and a rat-interrupted foray into shredded-plastic snow to cut down a Christmas tree.
On the other hand, there is a payoff for sitting through all the nonsense. The climax is surprisingly moving, and the in-the-round staging of the Rat King’s arrival is a special-effects coup. Credit goes to scenic designer Collette Pollard for walls that literally crack apart and to puppet designer Dan Kerr-Hobart and sound designers Michael Griggs and Harrison Adams for creating rats that are scary enough to give kids of all ages nightmares.