Review – The (Original) Nutcracker – Butterfly Wheels at Pentameters Theatre

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It’s been about two weeks since I’ve seen this show, and while I wasn’t going to review it, I realized, as time has gone on (and this has turned to the month I saw three Nutcrackers) that I really need to document what I saw, especially after reading Luke Murphy’s writeup. Just to be clear, this show was paid for: I’d received an offer for review tickets and turned it down (already booked), but when a Friday night held open for the Hackney Empire’s Jack and the Beanstalk stayed open after I decided to see it on opening night (and Peter Pan in Wimbledon got trashed, saving me an expensive ticket), I found myself going with a friend to this show, which was early enough (7 PM) to leave time for all sorts of other shenanigans.

The production was billed as 1) very little ballet 2) with projected films “that allow the story to flow from one fantasy to another” 3) that “stays true to the original novelette.” I am a fan of art that crosses disciplines and I’ve seen this story done as a ballet enough that I was quite ready to see a show that dealt with the “original” story. My friend and I thus found ourselves creeping up the stairs of the tiny Pentameters Theater at 6:50 on a Friday night, greeted (as we walked through the curtain into what looked like a sixty seat house) with a gingerbread cookie. Only about 15 people were in the room, most of us huddled against the back wall on cushioned chairs. I saw, as I ran my eyes over the rather elaborate set (certainly a budget buster for such a small space), that actors dressed as dolls were jammed into a shelf behind the bed of a girl’s room; I saw Harlequin, Columbine, Pierrot, and Punch and Judy. Ooh, what a treat, what were they going to do?

As it turns out, the dolls were, in my mind, the highlight of this production. I was put off at the beginning by Clara’s (Lauren Munisany) apparent pregnancy; a knocked-up “girl on the edge of womanhood” could certainly be an element of this story but it did just change the feel a lot. It turned out that this was just a very large bow under her night dress, but I couldn’t shake the feeling of Clara being a nymphette. The dissonance was not helped by her painful false German accent; it’s possible that better dialogue would have pulled me into the story more (the script should have been shot in the stable), but every time she opened her mouth, I just … had a bit of an out of body experience, reminding myself that the show was only going to be an hour long and there was still hope for salvaging the evening.

There were actually many things I enjoyed about this show. First, the emphasis on Drosselmeier as an inventor was great, and the clockwork castle scene was a wonderful addition to the normal execution of this story; and the strobe lit battle between the mice and the Nutcracker was an awesome bit of theater, with the glowing lights of the mice’s eyes making their heads appear to float around separated from their bodies. It was genuinely creepy and much more frightening than the usual comedy Nutcracker mice. And the telling of the story of how the Nutcracker came to be – he is a real man under an enchantment – filled a gap that I’d never pushed to hard to understand before.

However, these elements had to compete with even more things that I found unbearable. The Mouse King, who at one point appears to be doing karaoke, was unintelligible despite having rather a lot of dialogue. The promised movies utterly broke the flow of the story, were poorly done, and should have been abandoned. Clara’s tiny attempts at toe work should also have been jettisoned, and the rock music felt completely unnatural with the pseudo-classic setting. The dolls were fabulous and creepy, with sinuous movements that made me think of J.F. Sebastian’s toys in Blade Runner, but plopped in the rest of the production I wound up feeling like I’d somehow been transported to Kate Bush’s Christmas acid trip.

Sadly enough, this show seemed like it was bursting full of possibility but then took all of it and threw it out the window. It was really one of the worst things I’ve seen all year – admittedly, I didn’t walk out (I would have had to have crossed the stage to do so, and I kept reminding myself that it was only an hour long), but in its waste of the good elements it had, I think it’s going to probably count as the single most painful thing I saw in all of 2010. Thank God for the gingerbread cookies or I’d have absolutely nothing to console myself for the time I spent watching this misbegotten piece of theater.

(This review is for a show seen on Friday, December 17th, 2010. The show continues until January 9th, 2011. By the way, the doll girls are actually really hot: if this was a rave, the night would have been a raging success I babbled on about for years.)

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