“Nutcracker vs. Mouse King” battles its way to success
The Quasimondo's adaptation is funny and inventive but also an ambitious, unfinished look at the illusory nature of theater.
The Nutcracker is an American dance tradition of unparalleled familiarity. The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, the E.T.A. Hoffmann novella that inspired it? Not so much.
Reading the story, it’s a bit understandable – to say it’s bizarre is an understatement. Watching Nutcracker vs. Mouse King, The Quasimondo’s adaptation, the obscurity is much harder to justify. While it may have a DIY aesthetic that’s as much practical as conceptual, it’s one of the most artful shows I’ve seen in some time, in both senses of the word.
The Quasimondo’s really playing two different games with this adaptation. One is inventive and silly. One is ambitious but underdeveloped. But both are brilliant.
The surface-level play is a retelling of The Nutcracker and the Mouse King – but that description does not do it justice. Reimagining is closer. While Tchaikovsky cuts the backstory of how the battle between humans and mice began, co-directors Brian Rott and Simon Andreas Eichinger embrace it, beginning with the origin story and interweaving it with “real world” scenes.
That war begins when the nation’s Queen (Carolyn Marie Christianson) offers to give Dame Mousewrink (Megan Kaminsky) the fat she would have used in sausages for the King (Michael Guthrie). The irrationally furious King leads a mouse genocide, and in revenge, Mousewrink curses their daughter, Princess Pirlipat (Gina Weber), with the head of a nutcracker (a haunting construction by designer Katie Jesse).
The development of this flashback story easily takes up half the play, with the “traditional” story featuring Marie (Jessi Miller), her brother Fritz (Chris MacGregor), her parents (Guthrie and Jennifer Reinke) and the Nutcracker (Liz Faraglia) who battles the Mouse King (Eichinger) filling the remainder.
Shepherding us through both is Marie’s Godpappa Drosselmeir (Evan James Koepnick), also the clockmaker previously tasked with hunting down the kingdom’s mice. The Wonka-esque Koepnick frequently steals the show in his lemon yellow coat, eyepatch and streamer-threaded hair, and makes off with the plot completely at the start of the second act, when he temporarily turns the play into a Looney Tunes/Indiana Jones adventure with a gaudy, flamboyant astronomer (Andrew Parchman) as his sidekick.
If that sounds funny, that makes sense, because I laughed more watching Nutcracker vs. Mouse King that I have at anything in months. Much of the humor’s of the physical theater variety The Quasimondo trades in: mice tying their tails together to play jump rope, clever shadow puppet death scenes, etc. Another trick is to lay the groundwork for a gag and reset it over and over like a mousetrap – one battle scene is just a hilarious sequence of war games blending together, from a cavalry charge that turns into the Kentucky Derby to jets flying in circles that become Jets snap-dance-fighting with Sharks.
Dance is as key a component in Nutcracker vs. Mouse King as in its more famous cousin. There are allusions to that cousin throughout—the orchestra uses many of Tchaikovsky’s leifmotifs and there’s the occasional ballet move or two. More affecting is a robotic dance performed by Marie’s family, or the purposefully out of sync mirror dance between Marie and Princess Pirlipat when the Nutcracker finally takes her to Candy Land.
And here’s where we get to the second game The Quasimondo is playing – an undercurrent I would feel remiss in ignoring even though discussing it requires a small spoiler alert.
For you see, there’s more at work here than a simple retelling of an old tale. There’s an undercurrent of metatheatricality that runs through the entire production – the comedy is practically built on only being funny out of context or if you know it’s a play.
But the end of the play forces them into a new light with one simple action, although there’s no subsequent payoff. Throughout her journey in Candy Land, Marie is unsettled, twitchy, resistant to the offstage, fantastic delights. And then, as the Nutcracker’s pre-recorded vocals begin to skip and repeat, a befuddled Marie walks up to the curtain used earlier for shadow puppetry and creates the most arresting image I’ve seen on stage in recent memory: She pulls the curtain back to reveal her fellow actors, huddled in darkness, telling her to let go of the curtain in cutting whispers and sinister tones. It doesn’t do to remind the audience what’s actually real and what’s actually fantasy, you see.
The Quasimondo’s Nutcracker vs. Mouse King runs through January 5 at the Milwaukee Fortress, 100 E. Pleasant St. Tickets are $15, $10 for students, and can be purchased online at the Quasimondo website.