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The Nutcracker
by Amelia Orozco

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By: Jake Minton, Phillip Klapperich,

Kevin O'Donnell, and Tommy Rapley. At: The House Theatre of Chicago, 1543 W. Division St. Tickets:; $20-$50. Runs through: Dec. 30

This holiday season, as usual, there are plenty Nutcracker productions in town.

Thankfully, a Chicago tradition stands strong and stands out at The House Theatre of Chicago. Tommy Rapley's direction and choreography adds a freshness to The Nutcracker and the Mouse, the original story by E.T.A. Hoffman of hopes, dreams and magic. Rapley's The Nutcracker is not a ballet, but a celebration of family and friends amidst grief and sorrow, wrapped and ready to deliver through song and dance.

Part of the experience of this show is seen upon arrival at the venue. A milieu of people in costume are seen talking, laughing and dancing pre-show and during intermission. It has a SNL afterglow feel as the actors interact and mingle with guests who will take their seats just a few steps away, some at floor level. The stage is at center ring and the entire room is a living stage as some action takes place on the walls and spaces behind the seats. In a swirl of dancing and song, theatergoers experience the story up close and personal in this inviting and interactive space of The House Theatre. The players draw people in with eye contact and in-your-face interactions that tug at the heart.

This adaptation—by Minton, Klapperich, O'Donnell and Rapley—quickly enraptures with an opening Christmas party scene filled with anticipation and joy and then, just as fast, turns into the grim realities of death and loss. This is a brave undertaking by both the creators and actors as they are seamlessly moving from one scene to the next, a wardrobe change at a time and most treacherously of all, from smiles to tears. They are successful at it with all nimbleness of body and mind, bringing light to an otherwise dark tale.

There are many examples of this duality throughout the play. Take, for example, Clara ( Haley Bolithon ), an endearing child who is seen jumping with glee one moment and literally dropping to the floor the next, as she mourns the loss of her brother, Fritz ( Desmond Gray ). But her young heart trusts her Uncle Drosselmeyer ( Rom Barkhordar ) when he tells her that magic is real when the nutcracker doll he gifts her comes to life as her beloved brother, Fritz.

These imaginings are to the dismay of her grieving folks, David ( Nicholas Bailey ) and mom, Martha ( Amanda de la Guardia ) who reject any mention of the life and loss of their son Fritz, who died while serving in the military. Amidst this heavy dialogue, Bailey, de la Guardia and Barkhordar also double as the seedy rat crew, with English accents to boot. Each time, the actors return to their main roles and characters of uncle, mom and dad completely unsullied.

Music, lighting and larger-than-life rat puppets help in illustrating all of these points and it's done in a way that makes so much sense to the imaginative mind of a child. Deep darkness and low notes crescendo into emotional turmoil and turn back into Christmas magic that sweeps in with prop snow in flurries all around. This, by the way, was a playground of sorts at intermission enjoyed by all.

This Nutcracker is more than about toys that come to life to fight off grumpy rats—it's about cherishing loved ones and celebrating their lives, whether present or not. Clara and her family had lost a loved one and, yet, they still possessed all the elements to create a perfect Christmas but it was difficult to imagine it through their tears. It took the innocence and valor of a little girl to go into the dark places of the heart to battle these fears and finally break the family free from their sorrow, allowing them to once again celebrate with a renewed joy.

A wonderful gift that should also become a yearly tradition for families, The House Theatre of Chicago's Nutcracker will touch the most crotchety to the most sensible member of your family.

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