‘Tis the season to be rat king

House’s piece is an atmospheric tour-de-force, that gives us moments of both levity and menace.

By Eric Shoemaker

If you’re sitting on the stage, props are flying close enough to you for you to catch them, it snows on your face, and the holiday classic you are watching has been turned into a psychological thriller, you may be visiting the House Theatre—you may also be watching House’s Nutcracker, which has been entertaining and surprising audiences for three years. The show was devised and performed completely by members of House’s ensemble; this includes the writing of original music. House’s Nutcracker is truly a sight to behold, immersing you so deeply in their fantasy world that it is difficult to pull yourself out, even for a moment.

The story is, of course, timeless and virtually unaltered by the ensemble. A little girl named Clara has difficulty coping with the death of her brother and so her uncle, in an attempt to bring Clara to terms with reality, gives her a nutcracker. In play, Clara imagines the nutcracker to be her brother and he comes to life. Together with her nutcracker and her other toys, Clara fights the evil presence of the rats and gathers her courage to defeat the rat king, the epitome of evil (and denial). She wins the battle and reunites with her family, now ready to face the loss of her brother.

But this is just the bare bones story that E.T.A. Hoffman dreamed up. This skeleton, stripped of superfluous hang abouts, is given a new cloak by House, starting from the set. House stages Nutcracker in the round on their normal stage; five sets of French doors interrupt five sets of seating for the audience. The doors are the only permanent set pieces, leaving an open area in the middle of the arena of chairs and doors. There are also walls set up behind the audience members to complete the house dressing.  By putting the audience in this arena onstage, House creates a claustrophobic setting, very intimate, leaving the audience feeling surrounded and vulnerable to whatever might come out of those doors—this proves very useful later on.

The show’s first hallmark is a cute song about Christmas sung by Clara. It felt very much like “Where are you, Christmas?” from The Grinch, and so created an appropriate tone for a piece that involves many nasty rats who can’t stand the holidays. This song also introduces the audience to the actress playing Clara (Laura Grey) who pulls off a small child’s sense of wonder and fear very well in the piece, and sports a beautiful singing voice to boot.

House’s Nutcracker also benefits from other cute moments, mostly in the form of insanely adorable play sequences. Every time Clara’s toys come to life, a different dance or song is performed and different objects are thrown about the stage. The first song and dance involves baking cookies, which results in walnuts and measuring utensils flying through the air, sometimes at the audience. The second instance is a romp through the snow in the backyard, during which four giant tanks of fake snow are dumped onstage and on the audience members in the “splash zone” within ten feet of the stage. These moments create a childish frenzy in both actor and viewer, making the show a real joy to be a part of.

But, of course, House could not create a show that wasn’t at least one part melancholy, so the latter fourth of Nutcracker was designed to be a psychological swamp filled with rat kings and broken families. The set itself rises to the occasion, splitting the walls and curtaining off the doors, through which rats pour onto the stage in a most surprising and unnerving way. The rat king itself is a great surprise, one which I won’t ruin. The show accomplished a very dark atmosphere in a very rapid turnaround—“very scary,” as the rats would say.

House’s piece is an atmospheric tour de force that gives us moments of both levity and menace. The ensemble truly makes you believe it all. Because of the intensely fantasy-based storyline, the audience believes in the tale’s “magic” in a very real way mid-show, making things like the falling snow and the rat king very affecting. In their own grand tradition, House accomplishes a very real aesthetic even in this very false world of dancing nutcrackers and singing rats.