For those looking for holiday entertainment for children, which will also be of interest to adults, the Puppet Company’s “The Nutcracker” will be of special interest.
Children will delight in the story of the girl who witnesses her Christmas present of a Nutcracker soldier come to life and do battle with the King of Mice. Adults will find the production of interest because this is not merely a children’s version of “The Nutcracker” with the glorious music of Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky; it also harks back in many cases to the original text of the 1816 novella “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” by E.T.A. Hoffmann.
Puppet master and director Christopher Piper were as pleased that we noticed this return to the Hoffmannesque as we were pleased to see it. He tells us that “the Puppet Company’s policy is to go to the original source material, rather than works derived from the original, so for us going to Hoffmann was a no-brainer.”
Hoffmann was a writer of fantasy, perhaps the most famous before the advent and popularity of Edgar Allan Poe. He was also a musical composer as well – the “A” in his name stands for “Amadeus,” a middle name he chose in honor of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart!
Being not terribly successful as a composer, Hoffmann turned his hand to writing fantasy fiction, and the once-popular term Hoffmannesque stands for the grotesque and the supernatural. His original “Nutcracker” story is, therefore, darker and more sinister than the one which has been “sweetened,” as it were, by Tchaikovsky.
Perhaps the most successful aspect of the Puppet Company production (told throughout with Tchaikovsky’s music and no dialogue) is that despite the Hoffmannesque qualities, the production is still highly appropriate for children. There are thrilling moments that are slightly spooky rather than downright scary. One example is the moment dramatized out of Hoffmann: “The big gilt owl which was on top of the clock drooped its wings. Then Drosselmeier was up on top of the clock instead of the owl, with his coattails hanging down on both sides like wings.”
This Drosselmeyer character (portrayed with aplomb by lead puppeteer Kyle Donovan) is godfather to the children Fritz (enacted by Jenna Doulong) and Marie (played by Rachael Small). A typical Hoffmann character, Drosselmeyer is an inventor of a highly eccentric nature, giving Marie (whom we know from Tchaikovsky as Clara) a very special Nutcracker. This Nutcracker comes to life, as Seven-headed King of Mice (borrowed directly from Hoffmann and depicted in this version by Henry Kramer) threatens him and Marie.
Nutcracker effects victory and he and Marie go off to Toyland and a metropolis of ice cream, cake, and red-and-white swirled candy. Hoffmann’s “candy mead” and “lofty cake covered with sugar and cream” are shown in loving backgrounds in this version for the puppet stage. Is this voyage just a dream?
“Well, what a sleep you have had!” exclaims her mother (portrayed here by Conor Patrick Donahue) in the original story. Or is her journey real, as Marie still lives in an extraordinary world “reigns in the bright, beautiful country” of childhood imagination?
Hoffmann delighted in shifting back and forth between the worlds of fantasy and reality in his novellas, and this production handles these shifts uniquely and imaginatively. When characters such as Marie and her Nutcracker are in the real world before the “dream” sequence, they are portrayed by live actors wearing masks.
Upon entering the visionary sequence of Toyland and the Candyland metroplis, Marie and the Nutcracker become puppets! Drosselmeyer is aware of the world of fantasy and childhood imagination, but, as an adult, he is unable to enter it; he, therefore, is always portrayed by a masked actor.
Tchaikovsky delighted in expanding on the exotic elements in his “Nutcracker” ballet in short musical pieces such as the “Arabian Dance” and the “Russian Dance.” The “Arabian Dance” takes one for a magic carpet ride, while the “Russian Dance” features dancing Cossacks in candy cane colors of red and white. The famous “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies” is an especially fun sequence with butterflies flying in the form of butterfly puppets!
For those who think the Hoffmannesque approach is too serious for children, this is balanced by references to another text which fits squarely in the world of childhood: a gift is presented of “The Giant Book of Mother Goose.” As various Mother Goose rhymes are enacted: “This little piggy went to market,” “Tom, Tom, the piper’s son” and, of course, “Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.”
Drosselmeyer returns at the end as Marie must once again enter again upon the adult world. Magician-like, he pulls an hourglass out of a hat – reminding the children this show is at an end, though perhaps also with a darker message for adults about the transience of time.
The Puppet Company’s wonderful production of “The Nutcracker,” which works on these two levels of childhood imagination and the world’s heady realism, runs at Glen Echo Park through Dec. 29.