The Nutcracker at the Puppet Co.

The Puppet Co.’s interpretation of the holiday classic The Nutcracker goes well beyond ordinary hand puppets. In fact, much of the performance features adult actors donning oversized papier mache heads, using body language and movement to convey emotions and plot. There are also marionettes in varying sizes and a few special effects, but no spoken lines.

My four-year-old son had never seen a Nutcracker performance, so he didn’t know the story or what to expect. Nevertheless, he sat attentively through the show as Clara and her nutcracker battle the Mouse King and then explore Sugar Plum Land.

With the familiar sounds of Tchaikovsky’s score piped in, the performers move about with some very simple choreographed steps (nothing too complicated or those giant heads might throw off their balance). Some of the characters, including Clara and her nutcracker, are at times marionettes and at other times actors sporting jumbo heads.

There is a lot of smoke used onstage throughout the show. It first appears when a grandfather clock moves and then bursts with smoke, a special effect that sent a few kids in the audience scurrying off to find their parents. The other special effects are less scary, including fake snow that falls onstage (bubbles), the use of black light, large ornaments that drop from the ceiling, and a mural-like backdrop that moves like a conveyor belt to change the setting. The entire performance has a Christmas-y feel, from red and green velvet curtains, holly garland, and a Christmas tree to candy cane stripes and holiday sweets.

The second half of the show includes several vignettes of the sights of Sugar Plum Land. A jester brings out a giant book of Mother Goose and turns the pages as actors and puppets roll through Humpty Dumpty, This Little Piggy Went to Market, and Tom Tom the Piper’s Son. This was one part of the show that got my son giggling, as was the silly dancing donkey that followed.

One after another, the characters of Sugar Plum Land appear, some for a short bit, others dragging on a little too long. A genie, a huge shiny dragon, two peppermint candies, and a gardener are all actors with large heads. Little Bo Peep and flying fairies (including Clara as a fairy) are marionettes. One scene with three actors dressed as flowers holding matching flower marionettes dragged on a bit, though the marionettes resemble ballet dancers and are a nice nod to the Nutcracker’s roots.

This is the 25th anniversary of the Puppet Co.’s Nutcracker. When I chatted with Puppet Co. co-founder Christopher Piper on my way out, he mentioned that the show has changed and expanded over the years, but it’s still the same at heart.

The show is recommended for children in kindergarten and older. Other than the first burst of smoke, the dramatic music, and a pretty tame sword fight between the seven-headed Mouse King and the Nutcracker, there isn’t too much to scare younger kids. My four-year-old enjoyed the show. But afterwards, he told me I was wrong. “That was not a puppet show,” he said. In his view, puppetry is more like the hand-puppet library shows he’s seen. But I pointed out how many marionettes were in the production and hopefully helped him expand his appreciation of the arts.

More Information

  • The 50-minute (no intermission) show runs through December 29, 2013. Tickets are $10 for everyone age 2 and older (free for under 2), and there is no service charge for buying tickets online.
  • The theater is about a 10-minute walk from the parking lot. Strollers must be parked outside.
  • A line forms inside the theater lobby about 30 minutes before showtime, and theater doors open 15 minutes before showtime. Seating is first-come, first-served, and is mostly on the carpeted floor with some bench seating. A children-only area is marked off on the floor closest to the stage.
  • There’s a playground near the theater. The park’s carousel and cafe are closed for the season. The Irish Inn at Glen Echo is a short walk. And you can wander through other Glen Echo buildings and studios. Living Classrooms nature center is open on weekends.
  • After the show, the actors come off the stage with their masks removed to mingle with theatergoers.
  • A hardcover book with photos from the Puppet Co.’s production of the Nutcracker is for sale at the box office.
  • Tiny Tots @ 10:00 shows at the Puppet Co. are geared those under age 4. They are shorter and don’t involve much plot, and theater lights stay on. Tiny Tots Nutcracker Fantasy runs through December 29, 2013.

Photos courtesy of Christopher Piper.

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