What happens when a troupe of talented young artists takes on a bizarre old children’s story? Something like Nutcracker vs. The Mouse King, the beautiful, ambitious, and baffling original performance by the Quasimondo, a new physical theater company working out of the Milwaukee Fortress.
Every year, thousands of parents drag their kids to The Nutcracker, a tale about old-time sweets and an archaic kitchen utensil (would any modern child even look at a sugar plum? They sound gross). It’s not strange that the plot of this ballet company cash cow makes no sense, considering it was adapted from a story by the father of surrealism, E.T.A. Hoffman, whom Sigmund Freud famously cited as an example of “the uncanny”: unconscious fears, anxieties and impolite yearnings manifesting in hidden form.
Hoffman’s Nussknacker und Mausekönig, penned in 1918, is a hot mess of early modern European neurosis: military fetishism, inappropriate prepubescent sexuality, castration anxiety, and contamination angst—to name but a few. The trouble in the tale begins when mice eat the king’s lard (no kidding), and isn’t over until someone is able to crack a really hard magic nut with his teeth. There are curses, bitten babies, seven-headed mice, etc, etc. No wonder the ballet makes no sense! It does, however provide access to the attic of the Western European mind; a fantasy world overflowing with interesting old junk.
We can report that the ghosts that haunted old Europe don’t have much of a hold on the generation that grew up on text messaging and Harry Potter. Poignant moments in this show treat a girl’s crush, or a mother’s love for her baby, but the deep weirdness of the original has morphed into disjointed dream images and pop culture tropes: A girl produces a live mouse out of her hair; a goofy king tries to eat balloon sausages; a giant cat-face clock keeps metronome watch; an astrologer consults the stars (they’re very sarcastic); there’s a long, ill-fated journey via hot air balloon. Traditional Christmas songs are sensitively rendered, including an oddly-place “O come Immanuel” (the mice as the exiled Jews? Who knows?) There’s even a nod to the winter solstice, with a few tossed- off bars of “The sun will come out tomorrow.” There are some fine satires on warmongering as child’s play, with overt references to Indiana Jones, Mortal Kombat, and the game Battleship. And the closing, when all the fantastic characters dance together, is weirdly joyful.
The Quasimondo is the brainchild of Brian Rott, who has studied physical theater at the Accademia Del’Arte in Italy. He’s gathered a talented troupe of actors, dancers, sculptors, puppeteers and musicians into a truly impressive ensemble. Together with co-director Simon Eichinger, he developed the show from improvisations by the cast. This kind of work is very familiar in Europe and major arts cites in the States; less so in Milwaukee, where naturalistic narrative is still the norm. There’s a subtle knack to pulling this kind of show off, and it would be great to be able to say that Quasimondo totally rises to their very challenging source material, but this avant-garde commedia is a mixed bag. They hit more often than miss, but for every other striking image or brilliant comedic bit, there are longeurs where it’s not clear at all what’s supposed to be happening, or a gratuitous cheap gag. Still, the cast is attractive and charismatic, the ramshackle live band is a hoot, the shadow play is a lot of fun, the masks are creepily good, and there’s just enough aesthetic frisson to keep us engaged, if occasonally bemused.
If you depend on linear narrative, this show is probably not for you. But if you want to see a bunch of talented kids seriously mess with a strange minor classic in interesting ways, you will appreciate Nutcracker vs. The Mouse King. We look forward to the next show in Quasimondo’s ambitious first season: a cabaret “created by robots to entertain humans.” Can’t wait.
Nutcracker vs. The Mouse King
Adapted from the story by E.T.A. Hoffman
Directed by Brian Rott and Simon Eichinger
Friday, Dec 28, (Saturday, Dec 29 is sold out)
Sunday Dec 30 @ 2 PM
Thursday, Jan 3, Friday, Jan 4, and Saturday, Jan 5
The Milwaukee Fortress, 100 E. Pleasant St.
Tickets are $15, $10 for students, and can be purchased online at the Quasimondo website.