Friday, December 9, 2016

Freed from little Clara's spell: Drosselmeyer tries to rule the fantasy roost in NoExit Performance production

I was present as the second  weekend of NoExit Performance's current production got under way, but feared I had come into something with so long a foreground that I might never catch up. Eventually I felt as cozy as an orange in the toe of a Christmas stocking.

The company's oblique take on "The Nutcracker" goes back several years, but was unknown to me before Thursday night at Big Car Tube Factory's performing space in the facility's chilly basement. So oblique is the continuation of the offbeat tradition
Individuality challenged: Production number with Drosselmeyer at the center.
this year that the printed program has that title crossed out and replaced by the words "Drosselmeyer Presents: Another Twisted Classic."

The twisted classic brought out for NoExit Performance dissection turns out to be "A Christmas Carol." To say so is hardly a spoiler, I feel, since the production sends up the very idea of spoilers, suspense, expectations, and continuity. Even the curtain call convention is mocked, with just three cast members participating and Drosselmeyer's chief nemesis, the Mustached Man, inert on the floor and rolled offstage after everyone else has left.  Dick Scratchit, a lowlife Drosselmeyer hireling, springs up from his seat in the audience to perform that humble duty.

Drosselmeyer is wrenched from his crucial role in "The Nutcracker" ballet, where he is variously played by elderly non-dancers as somewhere on the spectrum of kindly to creepy. He's a godfather who bestows Christmas gifts on the children of the household, Clara and Fritz. Clara's nutcracker has been broken by her naughty brother, and as she sinks into sleep, her dreams call up a restored toy who becomes a prince leading her into a parade of wonders capped by the marvelous ballet and music of the second act. That's the story everyone knows, and that reminds NoExit Performance of something completely different.

Ryan Mullins directs the show and plays Drosselmeyer. As the creator of this full-fledged oddball, he seems thoroughly at home in the mime makeup, the eyes and mouth darkened for the sake of emphasizing his controlling nature and fear of surprises, his hunchbacked frame slinking about, his voice barking orders and complaints. His character's fears are well-founded, as the Dickens classic worms its way into the show with ghostly visits.

Well before those, we've been introduced to the Scratchits. While in "The Christmas Carol," Scrooge's clerk Bob Cratchit is firmly under the miser's thumb, the parody character here, together with his conniving sidekick daughter, is an indication that Drosselmeyer is losing his grip. Impeccably costumed and made up, Aaron Beasley plays him as a louche '80s character somewhat on the order of Christian Bale in "American Hustle." Callie Burke-Hartz is the adaptable Tiny Tim stand-in, always with a new handicap to trot out somewhat on the order of Fagin's boys in "Oliver Twist."

With boisterous sound design by Zach Rosing and choreography by a four-woman team, Drosselmeyer's attempt to get a
The richly bedizened ensemble of "Drosselmeyer Presents: Another Twisted Classic"
rehearsal under way — or, having belatedly noticed the audience, an actual show — suffers continual interruption and subterfuge. Beverly Roche's costumes for the ensemble are garish and puffy, making them as cartoonish as possible as they thwart the old man. Michael Burke, with extra stuffing fore and aft, is the egregious drag queen Ginger, the smiling spirit of Drosselmeyer's disintegration as a control freak. Georgeanna Smith Wade plays a more benign force behind Drosselmeyer's fading grip on his world as the effervescent Sparkle.

NoExit Performance's connection to the audience when I attended evoked the tradition of classic burlesque or the English music hall. Those bygone theatrical genres seem to have been far from the manner of the "interactive" or "audience-participation" notions of some theater today. The bond is less self-conscious and more a matter of wild-party cheer than bland good will. The contrast with conventional theater, even of a fairly looselimbed kind, couldn't be more pronounced. For comparison, the literary critic Edmund Wilson, reviewing burlesque at New York's National Winter Garden in the 1920s, described the audience as "keenly appreciative, and the house peals with easy thunder more infectious than the punctual crashes uptown."


How much do you love me?: Drosselmeyer can never be sure.
That's what you get at "Drosselmeyer Presents: Another Twisted Classic," though not without a little somber relief from the "easy thunder." When the drama turned dark for a stretch in the second act, a hush settled over the raucous crowd. A giant rod puppet, manipulated expertly by the ensemble, confronts Drosselmeyer with his cruelty and control-freakiness. Mullins advises the audience in program notes that Drosselmeyer deserves to be brought up short, so we are prepared for his comeuppance.

You have to consider where he comes from: a ballet in which he is a nonentity after getting the action started — a work that is a perennial audience favorite even though it's a washout dramatically after the first act, as well as one in which (except in some revisions), the star ballerina  doesn't even appear until the second act. Is "The Nutcracker," more popular in America than any other ballet, a mockery of its own genre?


Mullins and his mates realize that Drosselmeyer was created to vanish like the Cheshire cat, but with more of a grimace than a grin. Self-threatened by dissolution, the show has him wrestling with the perennial dilemma of those who take the stage in anything from "Hamlet" to "Another Twisted Classic": How to attain personal fulfillment, at the height of control, while giving audiences what they want. That's why performers bow at the end. They are saying to their applauders: "We've given everything to make all of this be as good as we can make it, but you're in charge. It means nothing if you don't approve." Drosselmeyer, like Scrooge, has to have his hardheartedness chipped away from him by the prospect of despair and meaninglessness. The audience pulls him back from that brink. It's as good a Christmas lesson as any.

[Photos by Zach Rosing and Big Car]