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Flash Review, 12-19: Holiday Fun in Chicago
Joffrey's "Nutcracker," and Other Treats

By Asimina Chremos
Copyright 2000 Asimina Chremos

CHICAGO -- Saturday night I went to the Redmoon Theater's Ninth Annual Winter Pageant. Redmoon is a puppet theater and really one of the best things about Chicago. Crowding through a narrow passage with happy, expectant folks I heard live drum, accordion, and reed music swirling through the space from the band at the other end of the hall. I entered the auditorium of the Pulaski Park field house with its bizarre allegorical painting and vaulted ceiling. The kind of brown cardboard that boxes are made of was used to make an undulating environment of caves in the corners and hills in the distance. I saw child and adult performers in burlap costumes running around with brooms, playing disorderly games with root vegetables. Someone handed me a carrot, and gave my companion a knob of ginger. A little girl came right up to where we sat, and sang a wordless song to the tune of "we represent the lollipop guild" (from "The Wizard of Oz" movie) using a broken, crushed potato as a puppet. As she opened and closed this raw, starchy, vegetable mouth, juice from the potato ran down her fingers. It was an intimate, surreal, and spontaneous private performance in the midst of a chaotic scene, one delightful moment of many to follow as the pageant progressed over the next hour or so through various seasonal scenes.

Sunday in the Auditorium Theater, the crowds swarmed the lobby for the matinee of Robert Joffrey's "The Nutcracker." It was getting right up on curtain time and ushers hustled people in and hollered loudly: "Take your seats, take your seats, there will be a hold on once the show starts, there will be no late seating." Once my friend and I were seated, the lights went down and a woman's disembodied friendly, professional voice welcomed us and gave us the rap about no photography, turn off pagers and cell phones, and so on. The Joffrey Ballet of Chicago Nutcracker Orchestra struck up the all-too-familiar overture, which sounded as polished as a well-engineered recording. The curtain rose to a giant painting of a Christmas tree, various toys, and a Nutcracker; and before this image child and adult performers dressed in Victorian finery paraded in stiff pantomimes of politesse and overacted anticipation.

Sigh.

I'm not too fond of Robert Joffrey's staging and choreography for this well-worn ballet company cash cow. I find it irritating when he does not stick to the program that Tchaikovsky set for what action happens to what music. I mean, the music is pure cartoon. It practically screams out "Now the giant mice come in!" and when instead of mice we see Clara (the irritatingly perky Stacy Joy Keller) run down the stairs in her nightgown, I mean -- it's just all wrong. And why, why the insertions of Act I music to introduce the divertissements in Act II? I don't care about the parallels of the Party Scene to the Kingdom of Sweets. It's not that cleverly done; and besides, it's impossible to follow the story at all the way R.J. lays it out. "Who is that guy supposed to be in the black cape?" asked my friend.

The attention to detail is misplaced. Instead of fooling with tradition, why not coach the Marzipan Shepherdesses (Jennifer Goodman, Gina Lathrop, and Sara Scully) as to how to wield those silver fake flutes they are swinging around? I asked my friend what she thought those things were and she said, "Batons?"

Finally, the busy-ness of the stage space opened up during the Sugar Plum/Cavalier pas de deux. I swear I recognized one of my students on stage, I think his entire role consisted of walking, standing proudly like a living pillar upstage left during a divertissement, and leaving, several times.

The tree trunk-like solidity of Maia Wilkins's muscular neck is an image that oddly sticks in my visual memory: Her long, oval face with it's pursed lips and raised eyebrows, her chin pulled back and up into her bun. There was the Sugar Plum Fairy as star athlete/diva in a pink tutu, kicking out those travelling fouettes with serious chops. Wilkins and Willy Shives did their duty with technique, taste, and a friendly demeanor, and the requisite "passionate" facial posing. Where is the playfulness, the humor, people? Face it, "The Nutcracker" can put a ballet dancer in touch with the poignancy of the human condition like nothing else. The goofy, hummable music, the fake multinationalism, the fun and fancy costumes. The having to dance it a million times every winter to the point of nausea.

My favorite performer was Tracy Julias, who danced the Spanish Chocolate solo. She was glamorous and fun, and she has wonderful technique that is both unmannered and lyrical. If anyone can be lyrical in R.J.'s disjointed assemblage of steps. Oh, it's irritating to watch the actual dance phrases, they just don't flow. They are too complex for the situation. Not enough space for the dancers to have fun and open their hearts. Throughout the ballet it seemed like the orchestra was playing too fast. Anyway, watching Julias, I had memories of the passionate, over-the-top Bolshoi "Don Quixote" I saw on the same stage. Guoping Wang, who did the Soldier Doll in Act I, the Russian divertissement, and probably some other things, also stood out for his general humor and realness in the midst of the strained-smile festival.

Randy Herrera (Fritz) is a fascinating performer. He can jump and spin like nobody's business. It's really quite breathtaking; especially in his role in the Snow section, which seems to have been made especially for him. And he does it all with a sort of earnest demeanor and anti-bravura stage presence. Sometimes he looks at the floor. His body emanates energy to the universe, but his face is like a guy focussing on doing a pole vault, not prancing around in white tights and a sparkly tunic representing a Snow Prince. It's charmingly peculiar; I think I need more time to analyze him.

A couple weeks ago I saw a 20-minute version of "The Nutcracker" in the Radical Faerie Feast of Fools Cabaret at the Hothouse, also in Chicago. Favorite sections of Tchaikovsky's score were rendered on violin and piano, and a woman named Pickles stood at the microphone relating a somewhat erotic, bordering on pornographic stream of poetics that referenced the story of "The Nutcracker," vaguely. Clara was played by Noam Gaster, a small man in a pink slip and disheveled blonde wig whose hairy thighs appeared when he rolled over, which he did frequently. Snatchleen O'Shea, a gum chewing, raven-haired, 80's-eque maven in sunglasses, a rock-star style top hat and long black cape nonchalantly sprinkled glitter from a plastic shaker jar on all the proceedings. Mother Ginger was played by a drag queen on stilts named Silky Jumbo; and the Rat King and Arabian Dancer was a double role for top-rate jazz/ballet/modern dancer Sarah Bishop. A young man with excellent drill team skills twirled a fake rifle with amazing dexterity, as a toy soldier. I'm sure I'm missing some of the performers, but the whole thing was surreally brilliant and ended in an orgy. Well, it was mostly "passionate" groping and at least one real (boy/boy) kiss.

Happy holidays!

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