When Round House Theatre’s Ryan Rilette approached Joe Calarco about directing The Nutcracker, visions of sugar plum fairies and toys come to life initially gave Joe pause. “I thought it was going to be this sweet, cute holiday play,” says Calarco, “with no center or meat to it. Just a whole lot of fantasy.”
But, he is quick to explain, that’s not the case. The adaptation Round House has chosen provides not just a reframing of the story, but also a very real, very topical reason for the exploration of magic and whimsy. Because there’s also death, and grieving, and the sadness and longing that can accompany holiday joy. “Within the first six minutes, you see how it works,” Calarco says, “and why the fantasy is so purposeful and important to this girl. Once I understood that, once I read that in the script, I was immediately on board.”
How, then, do you get from Mother Ginger and her dancing children to a story about a military family mourning the death of their son? The evolution of the Nutcracker story has its own choreography of twists and turns.
The version of Nutcracker now onstage at Round House was developed by the House Theatre of Chicago, by company members Jake Minton and Phillip C. Klapperich, in 2007. In building a retelling for the modern audience, the writers turned to the original 1816 Ernst Hoffmann novella, Nussknacker und Mausekönig, as their source material.
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But the ballet, as the Dumas translation before it, peels some of the depth from Nussknacker, leaving us with a simple, if joyous, land of sugarfloss and peppermint sticks. Go back to Hoffmann, and instead the world is dark, complex, fraught with harsh words, violent tales, and the creepier side of fantasy. The protagonist isn’t so much jetéing daintily around the house as she is running in fear.
Eventually, the Hoffmann novella achieves a balance of the gritty and the whimsical. In the text, it’s through a framework of stories that we come to discover magical worlds. The stories act as a salve against one character’s injury and illness, bringing her into imagined worlds to distract her from pain.
Round House’s holiday play seeks to accomplish a similar sort of duality, but with a modern-day resonance. For that reason, the character of the Nutcracker parallels not a princely suitor, but Clara’s late brother. The magic and whimsy of the dreamscapes allow her to move through her grief.
Yet this production of Nutcracker recognizes that people come to a show with Nutcracker in the title and expect certain things. So it aims to ease you in gradually, through a first scene performed entirely through movement and music, which serves as both exposition and a subtle hat-tip back to the ballet.
For many, the holiday season is a bittersweet cocktail of joy and sorrow, celebration and longing. And at its core, this retelling of The Nutcracker strives to hit that melancholic balance. “They don’t shy away from the reality of why fairy tales are written in the first place, to help children deal with the challenges of the world, and help children face their fears, says Calarco. “That’s what they do with this. There are some scary moments, and the family is dealing with real pain. But then again, the toys come to life and it’s really joyful, whimsical, and fun. They sort of combine them both.”
Calarco’s suggestion to audiences? “Be open to altering your preconceptions.”
“It’s more than a cute little holiday show,” he says. “This show is a ride. It goes to some dark, sometimes scary, sometimes emotional places. It does all the things that good theatre should do – which is exactly why it works.”