Backstage after their performance, the actors, still exhilarated and buzzed, talk about the show, and the children in the audience. The puppets, for a few hours, are once again still and waiting.
Veronica del Cerro, who plays Clara, the young girl who goes on a magical journey in The Puppet Company’s production of The Nutcracker laughed, remembering a child’s reaction from a previous performance. “This one little girl was just shocked to find out I wasn’t really Clara,” she said. “When I took off the mask, they were so startled. She said Clara was prettier.”
This perhaps doesn’t speak to a child’s acumen about who’s pretty and who’s not, since del Cerro, a well known Washington area actress who’s performed at Studio Theater and Roundhouse, is a very attractive young woman. But it does say something to the triple-threat magic that occurs at The Puppet Company. Children, after a while, can’t tell the difference between what’s real, what’ snot, who’s an in-the-flesh actor behind that mask, who’s a puppet and who’s a marionette, not to mention who’s a puppeteer, the manipulators who are always out of sight.
Human actors, wearing large masks, marionettes over a foot and a half tall, and small hand and glove puppets, all share the stage during the course of this by-now Glen Echo tradition, the annual production of The Nutcracker.
If you let yourself, or if you’re not prepared, the same confusion that embraces and engages children in the audience can bewilder an adult at times. Just ask me.
I watched a performance from a backstage and up-the-stairs vantage point, embedded, so to speak, sitting in the dark, trying to keep track of who was what, and where they went and were likely to pop up again.
This isn’t your normal backstage situation, nor, obviously, is the Puppet Company, a fixture in the magical kingdom of Glen Echo, the fabled and grand old park where you can find artists of all kinds, Adventure Theater, the long-standing and acclaimed theater for young people, ballroom dancing, and a beautiful carousel from the past.
Given the atmosphere, it’s no wonder that the Puppet Company—which stages a season of puppet-live-actor shows of children’s classics, like Pinocchio, mostly under an hour like The Nutcracker—is kind of a magic kingdom itself. The theater itself holds 250 seats—although seats is a bit of a stretch, since children in the audience sit on the floor, close to the stage, which allows not only for them to channel a certain restlessness, but also to be up close and personal, a suitable environment conducive to enchantment and hypnotism.
Upstairs, even from a certain distance, a harried Christopher Piper, who’s having a birthday, is a little stressed. Piper is the co-founder of the company along with Allan Stevens. It’s their third performance of the day. You could hear him mumbling: “If we get through this performance, it will be a miracle,” he said, fussing with puppets and marionettes, making last minute checks upstage from which the puppeteers manipulate the marionettes.
Stevens at first is nowhere to be found. The rest of the cast members are around, making small talk, laughing, fiddling with costumes, helping each other out, much as they do at the Kennedy Center or a touring company of a road show. Del Cerro is getting ready to become Clara, Piper, who has lead puppeteer duties will also take on several parts, Amy Kellet gets to be the Nutcracker and “a flower”, and other characters and:
Oh, there he is. I thought I saw a rather large woman pacing through the set in a flowing, voluminous dress, with, ah, that’s it, a beard. That would be Stevens, who plays mother and a dragon.
“They’re not exactly breaking down the door,” somebody says, probably Piper. “Don’t worry, they’re out there,” Eric Brooks replies.
It’s probably fitting that Piper, who is the son of a puppeteer and whose wife Mayfield does everything practical and therefore life-or-death important for the company, takes on the role of Drosselmeyer, the wise, magician-like grandfather who brings presents, and sets off the magic involving rat kings, Clara’s favorite toy the nutcracker, Arabians, fairy tales, Humpty Dumpty, dancing Russians, flowers and dragons and battles unto death between nutcracker soldiers and rats or mice of all sizes.
It’s disorienting back there, up the stairs. Brooks, as nimble as a ninja, between costume changes and scurrying about, works out, does leg exercises, and then disappears. One moment, Piper disappears into the mask of Drosselmeyer, the next he’s working the puppets.
Often, people simply disappear. I hear Kellett and del Cerro laughing near the refrigerator, the next moment del Cerro scurries by, pulling on her costume and presto she’s gone into the dark places behind the stage. And just as presto, a scintillating, mysterious, looming Arabian appears as if from nowhere, and, in your mind, you can hear small children gasp. It may be a trick of the imagination, what you hear and see.
The scale is off, too. Brooks, who plays a donkey, a flower, a Russian, and most importantly, a truly menacing rat king, looms large as rat and donkey, but the rat king and the nutcracker are also seen as small puppets on a string, battling it out. From my vantage point, the angles create a certain uncrafted surrealism—out there, I know, it comes together, carried along by Tchaikovsky’s deliriously ravishing music.
The scale, of course, is in the eye of the beholder, too. The Puppet Company production is compact, fast as a fully-lit circus train, and Russians, flowers, Drosselmeyer, mouse and nutcracker, Clara and her brother, mother and Arabian, move seamlessly across the stage, appearing from below, above , the wings, to create an action environment rich in detail, rich in what finally seems like some kind of potion.
All’s well that ends well, the actors reveal themselves to be not Clara or the Arabian, but themselves and the children clap, perhaps relieved that order is restored. Easy for them to say. Up here, there comes a time, as it did for the children, some small part of me believes implicitly in the mask, that mouse king with his many heads, the lovely and dramatic Clara, the old magician Drosselmeyer. At some point, even watching them change into the character, I’ve forgotten who’s behind the mask.
Outside, the buzz of children sounds like particularly excited bees. “I know you’re scared of the mouse, honey,” a mother says to her little daughter. “But look, he’s gone.”
Just ask her if he’s gone. Not really, not for a long time. Like the father carrying a young boy on his shoulders, “We’ve been coming here for years.”
The mouse king, at least until they start playing football, or trying out for a ballet version of Clara, will be around, when the lights go out at night.
I haven’t forgotten him. The scariest mouse king ever.
To get an idea of what it is like out front, here is a video of Puppet Company’s Nutcracker from several years ago.
The Nutcracker runs thru Dec 31, 2010 at The Puppet Company in Glen Echo Park, 7300 Glen Echo Blvd, Glen Echo, MD.
[The Puppet Company tells us their annual adult puppet SLAM, featuring local and out-of-town puppeteers will be Feb 11, 2011 at 7pm and 9pm. More on this later.]