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Adapted by B. Wolf
Music by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Kathy Burks Theatre of Puppetry Arts

Dallas Children's Theater

Director - Kathy Burks
Scenery and Lighting Design? Sally Fiorello
Sound Design - B. Wolf
Shadow Design - Jane Hook
Puppet Design and Construction - Kathy Burks, Ted Kincaid,
Sally Fiorello
Costume Design and Construction - Patricia Long, Rosemarie
Powell, Audrey Lambinus

Douglass Burks - Voice of Tchaikovsky
Sally Fiorello - Voice of Mustelle
Kathy Burks - The Puppet Puppeteer
Sally Fiorello - Narrator/Clara
Ted Kincaid - Herr Drosselmeier
Patricia Long - Fritz

Sally Fiorello, Douglass Burks, Becky Burks Keenan,
Ziggy Renner - Puppeteers

Reviewed Performance: 11/19/2011

Reviewed by David Hanna, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

"Experimental theatre" is a loaded term. It's often associated with edgy, controversial subject matter or is stereotyped as obtuse, pretentious, and overly `artsy'. Experimental theater, though, doesn't have to offend or confuse an audience. Kathy Burks Theatre of Puppetry Arts' production of The Nutcracker proves sometimes a theatrical experiment can translate an artistic institution into an entirely new experience.

According to their profile Kathy Burks' company, established in 1973, "[performs] using all styles of puppetry". This production utilizes a technique called "Black Theatre?in which puppets perform in a stream of light" while the puppeteers wear "black robes, hoods, and gloves". The effect is incredible as puppeteers are almost invisible in the black box setting of Dallas Children's Theater's Studio Theater. Objects float, dance, and vanish into thin air, all without seeing the rods each puppeteer uses to control the puppets' movements. The "Black Theatre" technique is a truly fascinating sight to see.

This version of The Nutcracker is an adaptation of Balanchine's ballet, following the storyline children and adults have come to know and love. A young girl, Clara, is given a nutcracker by her eccentric (and seemingly magical) godfather, Herr Drosselmeier. Clara wakes in the middle of the night to go retrieve the precious gift, only to be attacked by mice. When the mice begin to overwhelm Clara, the Nutcracker awakens and fights them off, only to be attacked by his nemesis, the Mouse King. The Nutcracker is unable to fend off the King but Clara attacks and defeats the King, allowing the Nutcracker to transform back into a Prince.

From there, Clara is taken to the Kingdom of Sweets, where new characters of Burks' creation enchant her. A genie appears from a lamp and charms a snake of tinsel. A large Nutcracker appears for the "Dance of the Sugar Plums", only to reveal that two smaller Nutcrackers are inside. Once the stage has been decorated with trees and flowers, petals dance around Clara, finally coming together in the vision of a single rose. Tchaikovsky's music takes hold in the second act and the puppets move with it, creating an entirely new vision of the Kingdom of Sweets.

Before all of this, however, there is a prologue in which Tchaikovsky himself explains the creation of his most famous ballet. It's an interesting insight: Tchaikovsky created the main melody of The Nutcracker while hearing the rhythm of a train car. The composer was also the first person to use the `celesta', an instrument created by Edgar Mustelle. The whole segment runs a little long, but it's understandable considering that both DCT and Burks' company are invested in education as well as entertainment.

The final part of the prologue is a different story. As Tchaikovsky threatens to continue droning on, a puppeteer dressed in a black robe appears onstage and asks why Tchaikovsky is taking so long. The character is played by Burks, making for a funny exchange between her and the composer as they debate whether or not The Nutcracker should even be performed in a new interpretation. It's a very tongue-in-cheek moment that adds some fun to the performance.

The puppeteer then explains the process of "Black Theatre", and its here that Burks' production runs into a snag. By showing the audience how the puppets are being controlled, Burks undermines their ability to suspend disbelief. In a house full of kids, there were very few gasps or moments of surprise. I found myself looking for rods and hands in the light because I had been told what to look for. The decision to reveal the method of puppetry is like a magician telling his audience how he is going to do a trick before doing the trick itself. It is a choice that at best doesn't add to the show and at worst hurts the audience's ability to suspend disbelief.

After this build-up, Tchaikovsky never returns to the show after the puppeteer yanks him offstage. The character of Tchaikovsky is actually interesting and could provide commentary between scenes. Instead, he disappears into the black, and the audience is thrown into a show without a point of reference. Once the telling of The Nutcracker begins the audience is left wondering what the real purpose of the prologue was. Tchaikovsky seems to be the through-line that makes sense of the entire production but the connection is never established. The result is a show that sometimes feels fragmented and stilted.

That's not to say The Nutcracker isn't fun to watch. The puppeteers are incredibly skilled, making objects like paper, balls, and piano keys come to life. The performers' attention to detail is seen in every subtle gesture and tiny movement. There's also a lot of humor in the show, something not normally associated with The Nutcracker. One of the best parts of the show is when Heir Drosselmeier performs a puppet show for Clara and her brother, Fritz, explaining how The Nutcracker fought the Mouse King and lost. The show within the show is hilarious as the two enemies whack each other on the head repeatedly like a toned-down Punch and Judy routine. The Nutcracker is a fun show and an interesting experience.

The design of the show is impeccable as well. Burks' company is a self-contained unit that both creates and performs its works. The puppets are designed by several of the performers, which shows in the ease and intricacy of the puppets' movements. Costumes are bold and colorful, and reflect the fantasy of Tchaikovsky's music. Puppeteers are rarely visible because of the impeccable lighting and "shadow design". Design elements function exactly as they should in The Nutcracker because each company member knows how an audience will react to their design. There's something to be said for a group that has a strong vision and the skill to execute that vision flawlessly.

In the end The Nutcracker overcomes its structural issues. There's disconnect with the audience and performer in the beginning of the show but once the story of the Nutcracker begins, the show hits its stride. The Nutcracker comes just short of being a complete piece of theater. That's the nature of experimental theatre though ? sometimes things are left rough around the edges. The Nutcracker moves past those issues and proves that daring, unique theater can also be entertaining.

Dallas Children's Theater, Rosewood Center for Family Arts
5938 Skillman Street,Dallas, TX 75231
Runs through December 22nd

Fridays, only November 18 & 25, at 7:30pm; Saturdays at 1:30pm & 4:30 pm; Sundays at 1:30 pm & 4:30 pm; Tuesday, Wednesday, & Thursday, December 20, 21 & 22 at 10:00 am & 11:30 am

Ticket Prices:
- Saturday 4:30pm - $21 Adult & Youth Section A; $14 Adult & Youth Section B
- Friday 7:30 pm/Saturday 1:30 pm/Sunday 1:30 pm & 4:30pm
- $26 Adult/$24 Y