“Call to mind the table covered with your last Christmas gifts […] You will then be able to imagine the astonishment of the children, as they stood with sparkling eyes, unable to utter a word, for joy at the sight before them.” These words from E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” upon which Tchaikovsky based his ballet describe the delightful spectacle on view at Glen Echo Park as the Puppet Co. delights with its very special gift to children of its 34th annual production of “The Nutcracker.”
The acting and puppet mastery in this production are all exceptional…an outstanding continuation of an annual seasonal production…
The production effectively draws both upon the ballet music by Tchaikovsky as well as the famous 1816 novella of Hoffmann. Hoffmann, a great pioneer in fantasy fiction, delighted in segueing back and forth between the worlds of fantasy and reality in his novellas—in this case, the pedestrian world of adulthood and the bright, imaginative world of childhood. In this story, a girl (in some versions called Marie, in others Clara) is given a nutcracker, which she imagines comes to life and do battle with the seven-headed king of mice. When in danger, she exclaims in the story:
“’Oh, my poor Nutcracker!’ she cried, sobbing, and without being exactly conscious of what she did, grasped her left shoe, and threw it with all her strength into the thickest of the mice, straight at their king. In an instant, all seemed scattered and dispersed…”
This scene leading up to the Nutcracker’s victory over the mouse king is carried out faithfully in The Puppet Co. version. From an adult perspective (again turning briefly to the original story), she is dreaming this all in fever-wrought delirium, a bit like Dorothy and her adventures in “The Wizard of Oz.” The Puppet Co. production keeps up this dichotomy between the real and the fantastical by switching back and forth between the child and her Nutcracker prince by using live-action actors with masks for the “real” portions, and puppets for the fantasy parts.
The acting and puppet mastery in this production are all exceptional, with some of the actors playing multiple roles. Elizabeth Dapo plays the mother, with Annette Mooney as the girl. Danny Pushkin plays Drosselmeyer, while Rose Talbot is the Nutcracker, and Cate Ginsberg as the Mouse King. All combine acting and even some ballet and use both art forms to make the story abundantly clear to children.
The Puppet Co. confidently departs briefly from Hoffmann’s original story, introducing vignettes enacted from the Mother Goose stories, including “Little Bo Peep,” for instance, and “Humpty Dumpty.” The beautiful sets also feature Christmas lights and a large painted Christmas tree, adding seasonal flavor to the proceedings.
The strange character of Drosselmeyer, the person who crafted the Nutcracker, is here given an original interpretation by being portrayed multiple ways: at times he is a magician, even pulling a rabbit and bouquet of flowers out of a hat; at other times he is a puppet master; and, at one point, as a man with hypnotic powers, at least over the girl’s naughty brother. The live-action Drosselmeyer is regal with his cape but also a bit spooky in an enjoyable, not too frightening, way. It should be mentioned that the production is delivered without spoken words, so the live actors must pantomime, and they do so with aplomb.
At the end of the show, the mysterious character of Drosselmeyer returns, pulling an hourglass out of his hat in order to show the passage of time which pulls Marie/Clara out of her puppet incarnation and into a real person again. This serves as a clever way to transition us back to the real world.
As suggested above, director Elizabeth Dapo and associate director and choreographer Kirk Bixby are faithful to Hoffmann’s original vision while adding their own unique touches. The show has great verve and is an outstanding continuation of an annual seasonal production which originated decades ago with the founding Puppet Co. team of Allan Stevens, Christopher Piper, and MayField Piper.
Running time: Approximately fifty minutes with no intermission.
“The Nutcracker” runs through January 1, 2023, presented by The Puppet Co. at 7300 Macarthur Blvd, Glen Echo, MD 20812. For more information and tickets, go online. Call 301.634.5380 or email Box.Office@thepuppetco.org for any questions. Face masks are required to be admitted to the puppet theatre.