Playwright: adapted by Jake Minton and Phillip Klapperich from the story by E.T.A. Hoffman. At: House Theatre of Chicago at the Chopin, 1543 W. Division St. Tickets: 773-769-3832; www.thehousetheatre.com; $25-$45 . Runs through: Dec. 29
Playgoers who first encountered the stories of E.T.A. Hoffman through Jacques Offenbach's opera know to expect a few tears with the laughterhey, that's romanticism for youbut those who have never known The Nutcracker as anything but the Tchaikovsky ballet will have to erase lingering images of tinselly tutus from their memories before viewing House Theatre's adaptation of the venerable Christmas fable.
Jake Minton and Phillip Klapperich's version proposes an American family whose Christmas celebration is interrupted by the news that their boy has been killed in Iraq. The next year finds the parents still immersed in their grief, to the disappointment of the deceased G.I.'s sister Clara and eccentric uncle Eric, who gives the child a nutcracker made to look like her late brother. Soon it and her other toysa talking doll, a brainy tin man and a Francophile sock monkeyare on a mission to bring Christmas back to the bereaved household.
Well, why not? Aren't all midwinter festivalsChristmas among thembased on the rekindling of light to drive away the long solstice night? Is not every holiday falling at the turn of the year, no matter what faith lies at its foundation, accompanied by symbols of renewed life springing from an earth grown cold and dead? Add the House ensemble's love of epic legends, and is it any surprise that they portray the seasonal transition as a mythic battle against the rats who thrive in the darkness, whose defeat serves to illustrate the necessity of overcoming sorrow and loss to move on.
Such weighty subtexts could easily eclipse the very goal they seek inspire, but Minton and Klapperich have had four years since their parable's premiere to fine-tune the balance between bittersweet life-lessons and gleefully juvenile exuberance. The brisk two-hour-with-intermission production currently playing at the Chopin features madcap chases, food-fights, found-object scrimmages, uptempo patter songs ( the lyrics of one composed of the recipe for sugar-plum cookies shared with audience members ), a terrifying five-headed puppet Rat King andsince it wouldn't be a House play without an unexpected shower of somethinga ( fake ) snowfall for children and adults to play in before the crew sweeps it up. Doesn't that sound like a merrier time than baby fairies in pink satin tippy-toe shoes?