Author: Hans Christian Andersen
At: Lookingglass Theatre Company, 821 N. Michigan Ave. Tickets: lookingglasstheatre.org or 312-337-0665; $45-$85. Runs through: Jan. 13
For the discerning child, or jaded adult, Lookingglass Theatre has managed to avoid a treacly holiday production and inject some bitterness and heartbreak into a slot reserved for fluffy fairy tales. With Mary Zimmerman and her artistic team at the helm, Hans Christian Andersen's The Steadfast Tin Soldier make good on an unspoken promise to be like nothing you've ever seen.
In The Steadfast Tin Soldier, we follow a broken soldier figurine ( Alex Stein ) that is discarded by a fickle child, and must then face off against a maniacal Jack-In-The Box Goblin ( Anthony Irons ), a bureaucratic sewer rat ( John Gregorio ), street toughs, a hungry fish and a no-nonsense Nursemaid ( Christopher Donahue ) before he is reunited with the toy ballerina ( Kasey Foster ) he loves. The production uses puppets, dance, and circus feats to get the story across; everything but words uttered aloud. It's a Victorian style pantomime complete with voluminous wigs and a chamber orchestra, but don't let that scare away your digitally-connected youngsters. These players have some modern Thriller-claws, Moonwalks and more in their back pocket.
Puppet designers Blair Thomas and Tom Lee have set loose a stunning array of foam creatures and masks that evoke slippery fish and giant reaching toddler hands. Director Mary Zimmerman and Props designer Amanda Herrmann have translated tougher-to-grasp concepts into narration monogrammed into handkerchiefs or spelled on childrens alphabet blocks, and it's nothing short of delightful. Actors bound quickly from portraying tree ornaments to guard rats in nimble and colorful costumes by Ana Kuzmanic.
The story rests largely in movementdancing, preening, slow-motion battles, and sometimes just the biggest maniacal grin a performer can muster. Christopher Donahue is in a class all his own as the stoically fussy Nursemaid who's grimace goes unbroken except to fend off a smitten fishmonger. Anthony Irons and John Gregorio are apt clowns, puppeteers, and uproarious villains in their many iterations, and Alex Stein and Kasey Foster are masterful as the broken soldier and ballerina, just trying to find their stride in an awkward, but supportive dance relationship.
This production takes a lot of risks in a season that tends to be overly saccharine for all tastes, but there's one notable risk the artistic team didn't take: handing a differently abled role to a differently abled actor. There's whimsy in stiching "Missing" on a character's pant leg, but I'd argue there'd be even more whimsey ( as well as power and inclusiveness ) in seeing performers unite to physically support an actual differently abled actor. But, as Hans Christian Andersen might say, life does not guarantee you the ending you want, so you'd better learn to make the best of things.