Throughout the ages, artists have found inspiration and handy framing devices in the dreams of children. From Alice's sleepy tumble through the looking glass to Dorothy's head-trauma twister, kiddie dreamscapes feature unnervingly dark corners—decapitation-happy queens, wicked witches, and terrifying attack monkeys.
Nutcracker, a beloved childhood nightmare, first appeared as a story by E.T.A. Hoffmann in 1816, premiered as a ballet scored by Tchaikovsky in 1892, and has continued to thrive on ballet stages, movie screens, and puppet platforms. Nutcracker centers on Clara, a German girl forced to endure one of the worst Christmas experiences since Mary's epidural-free barnyard delivery. We first meet Clara while she's sleeping. Her creepy godfather, Herr Drosselmeier, visits her in a dream and brings three figurines that act out a story: A nutcracker attempts to defend a lovely princess from a humongous mouse who bites the girl, transforming her into an ugly hag.
Clara's nurse wakes the girl and hurriedly dresses her for the Christmas party in full swing downstairs. She meets the real Herr Drosselmeier, who immediately begins fucking with her head, instructing Clara's brother to torment her and showering all the other children in the room with gifts. Drosselmeier introduces three figures, which reenact the mouse-bite dream. Finally, the frightened Clara gets a gift of her own: a toy nutcracker, which provides her with a few rare moments of comfort before her brother breaks the toy, everyone starts dancing, and the party ends.
Then shit gets really weird. Clara sneaks downstairs to find the living room overtaken by mice. A life-sized nutcracker sword fights the Mouse King, whom Clara magically murders with her shoe. This slipper slaying turns Clara into a princess, the nutcracker into a prince, and sends the couple off to a Magical Land where they take in an international dance showcase.
In PNB's Nutcracker, this showcase provides a series of exquisite moments in what is, for the most part, an unfailing parade of delights. Designed by beloved illustrator Maurice Sendak, the set elegantly establishes the story's duel between dream and reality. Sendak's beautifully faded pastels—sets and costumes of bleached pinks and gray-greens splashed with patches of rich bright red—are simply gorgeous. Add Tchaikovsky's intricately melodic score, performed by a full orchestra, and the dance, which ranges from good-enough-to-pay-money-to-see to extraordinary, and you've got an entertainment so accomplished and ravishing you can almost forget about the little girl being tortured by rodents and godfathers.
Such gorgeous lushness is absent from Northwest Puppet Center's Nutcracker Puppet Ballet, performed in NWPC's charmingly funky Greenwood space. Random shabbiness characterizes most of the (non-puppet) elements, with seemingly little effort to set the story in any discernible space or time. Still, the marionettes—operated by Carter Family torchbearers Dmitri Carter and Jen Yang—get progressively more delightful, climaxing with the aforementioned dance pageant, rendered here with jumping monkeys, pirouetting frogs, and a pimp-walking peacock, all of which sent the kid-packed crowd into fits of giddy bliss.
At the end of Nutcracker, we again see a sleeping Clara, who really should be tested for narcolepsy, and who, according to PNB's synopsis, awakens "wondering where fantasy ends and growing up begins."
If there's a lesson to take home, it seems to reside in Clara's magical shoe. When the Mouse King first appears, the Clara figure fails to defend herself and his bite makes her hideous. But in the dream of Act 2, Clara gets another chance to vanquish the Mouse King—she rises up with her deadly shoe, kills the regal rodent, and becomes the beautiful princess of her dreams. The moral: always kill the Mouse King. It may be a Mouse King of fear, it may be a Mouse King of prejudice, but if beauty is to flourish, the Mouse King must be killed—preferably with the shoe of a prepubescent narcoleptic.