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‘The Nutcracker’ at The Puppet Company by Julia L. Exline

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The Puppet Co. presents Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, a holiday classic beautifully re-imagined through puppetry. The multi-talented Christopher Piper, who holds the titles of performer, puppetmaster, and mask and puppet designer, also directs this visual stunner. The original staging, music arrangement, and design concepts  are credited to Allan Stevens.

Photo courtesy of The Puppet Co.

Photo courtesy of The Puppet Co.

The colorful set is decorated with lavish red and green velvet drapes with golden tassels, as well as grand archways, a towering grandfather clock, and boughs of holly. The most stand-out element is the painted backdrop of a Christmas tree, which rises upwards and outwards, eventually overtaking the stage! What really sets this production of The Nutcracker apart from its competition is the unique costumes and use of puppetry. Performers Christopher Piper, Joshua Aaron Rosenblum, Annette M. Wasno, Matt Reckeweg, and Rose Talbot wear grandiose puppet masks that transform them into life-sized dolls. While the cumbersome puppet masks make for some slow blocking (how they manage to walk, let alone sword-fight in those things, I have no idea), the overall effect is striking and worth the patience needed to watch them. The rest of their costumes are bold and detailed, from frilly pajamas and lacy Victorian dresses, to fine suits, billowy velvet capes, and top hats.

Since the story is told through music and movement, a summary of the plot is helpfully included in the program. As there is no dialogue in this production, it is important to familiarize your children with the story before the show begins (otherwise it proves quite confusing, shown during my performance when a bewildered girl kept shouting, “What happened?!” every other minute).

While two siblings (Clara-Marie and Fritz) play together on Christmas Eve (okay, more like bicker and taunt each other on Christmas Eve), a man appears and entertains them with a puppet show, including a nutcracker and a somewhat aggressive mouse that almost breaks the nutcracker—who is rescued by Clara-Marie. After bedtime, Clara Marie is confronted by the angry mouse and magically shrinks down to the size of a toy (the set itself cleverly transforms along with her). What follows is a battle, heroic feats, and an adventure in Sugar Plum Land; the home of fairy-tale characters including Humpty-Dumpty and Mother Goose. There are other magical creatures as well, such as dancing flowers, a shimmery dragon that playfully snaps its jaws at the audience, and a floating genie that is eerily captivating. Special effects like fog and snowfall enhance the performance. Marionettes and hand puppets are also used in the production, to give a well-rounded view of what a talented puppeteer can do.

The Puppet Co. knows children, and as a reviewer who specializes in child-oriented theatres, I must say that this is one of my favorite venues. With life-sized puppets, splendid effects, and a beautiful score, The Nutcracker is enjoyable for theatergoers of all ages and always delivers Christmas cheer!

Photo courtesy of The Puppet Co.

Photo courtesy of The Puppet Co.

Running Time: 50 minutes, without an intermission.

The Nutcracker plays through December 29, 2013 at The Puppet Co.– 7300 MacArthur Boulevard in Glen Echo Park, in Glen Echo, MD. For tickets, call (301) 634-5380 or purchase them online.

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