Review by Joe De Rosa; photo by Liz Lauren.
“Most of the people who will walk after me will be children, so make the beat keep time with short steps.”
–Hans Christian Andersen
You enter the Lookingglass to the tick-tock of a grandfather clock. As you get settled in your seat, you look around the theatre and find you’re in the holiday countdown of a full-stage, living advent calendar. When the clock chimes, a strangely comic Nursemaid dusts her way on stage to open one of the 25 numbers, revealing an image from Hans Christian Andersen’s The Steadfast Tin Soldier. This, you think, is a good way to get the audience interested–the Nursemaid is fun and silly and it’s a children’s story, after all. You notice there are certainly plenty of children in the audience. Yet, as the grandfather clock continues its tick-tock, you also notice that there are more than a few adults who seem to be wearing the same facial expression as the children. They look expectant, like they can’t wait to see what’s behind the number on the calendar, like they can’t wait to see the magic behind the curtain, like they can’t wait to see what happens next. They’re excited, yes, but it’s more than that. They seem almost a little enchanted, or perhaps they know they’re about to be. It’s as though they’ve seen the show before and they’ve returned to feel the magic once more (which indeed might be the case). Then, as the four-piece band at the foot of the stage plays, the last door is opened to reveal a Tin Soldier, and with this, the lights dim, and you are transported into a fairy tale brought to life.
Now in its second holiday season, Mary Zimmerman’s The Steadfast Tin Soldier has returned to the Lookinglass to find a growing audience more than ready to embrace this beautiful pantomime–with its extraordinary performances and captivating puppetry–as the next great holiday tradition. And this special place in Chicago’s Christmas season is well-earned, for Zimemrman’s story is a magical dream.
As the dream begins, a little boy opens his Christmas gift to find a set of toy soldiers. Cast from not quite enough tin, one of the soldiers has only one leg. The little boy–a giant storybook head and hands brilliantly conceived by the Chicago Puppet Studio–sets the stage for the interplay between the actors and puppets that gives the story a surreal storybook feel. The little (gigantic) boy leaves the broken soldier alone for a moment on the floor, and here he comes to life. At first, the one-legged Steadfast Tin Soldier can’t march, but he finds a way and soon falls for the paper-doll Ballerina, who enchants him as she stands in an arabesque in the window of a dollhouse. Along with the Steadfast Tin Soldier, we zoom into the play’s second window–a trip that will prove to be only the first of a series of magical changes in space and storytime that will bring us deeper into Andersen and Zimmerman’s imagination. And the real action begins.
In his role as the Steadfast Tin Soldier, Alex Stein gives a masterclass on simple, Steadfast determination. He is, at once, brave and lovable, and, of course, always true. In her role as the Ballerina, Kasey Foster is lovely, funny, often graceful, and always focused–with an “Oh, Ok!” expression that perfectly captures the sense that she is both caught up in and a little caught off guard by the Tin Soldier and their love story.
Replete with twists and turns, we follow the Toy Soldier through an absurd dance with the Ballerina and clowns–turned oddly poignant when the Ballerina and Toy Soldier share a moment together, and then disastrous when the Goblin Jack-In-The-Box makes his evil intentions known. Denied by the Ballerina, the Goblin magically casts the Steadfast Tin Soldier out the window. In the ensuing adventure–from the pavement below, to the sewer, to the belly of a very large bass, to the family dinner with said fish, back to the playroom, and finally to the fires of a furnace–the Steadfast Tin Soldier more than earns his name as he endeavors to return to his beloved Ballerina.
With a storybook-stealing series of performances, John Gregorio, Anthony Irons, and Joe Dempsey bring utter joy and fantastical fun to the melange of roles they play throughout the fairytale pantomime. Gregorio twists and spins with unmatched humor as both the River Rat and lovestruck Fishmonger. Anthony Irons is, by turns, maniacal in his role as the Goblin Jack-in-the-Box, then clever and a little devious as a street urchin, and then, later, well… perfectly drunk as the father at Christmas dinner. And in his role as Nursemaid, there are really, honestly, and truly no words that begin to capture Joe Dempsey’s performance. Suffice to say, he’s hilarious and perfect.
Hans Christian Andersen’s dark fairytale has inspired a host of adaptations since it originally appeared in a booklet of stories for children in 1838, but it’s difficult to imagine it has ever been more beautifully rendered on stage. At just over an hour in length and without an intermission or, for that matter, a single line of dialogue, Mary Zimmerman’s English Pantomime radiates profound tenderness and creativity. Beautifully lit by T.J. Gerckens, Todd Rosenthal’s gorgeously evocative set design and Amanda Hermann’s miniatures and props bring depth and color to the storybook feel. The Chicago Puppet Studio’s extraordinarily artistic creations give the play a magical quality well beyond the conventional theatre experience. And, from start to finish, the fairytale is set to a captivating score composed by Amanda Dehnert and Andre Pluess, who, along with Christopher M. LaPorte, designed the show’s sound with Leandro Lopez Varady on Piano, accompanied by Greg Hirte on violin, Juan Horie on cello, and Constance Volk playing the flute.
All of this would be enough, but there’s something more to this play. Yes, the pantomime is extraordinary and the performances are comically compelling. Yes, the music is fantastic and the puppets are magic. Yes, the set looks like an Advent calendar that somehow opens into a 19th-century fairytale. But, here’s the thing…
At heart, what enchants us most is that The Steadfast Tin Soldier is a simple, beautiful story that just so happens to feel absolutely true, and maybe this is just what we need this holiday season. Maybe there’s a child in all of us that wants to believe we have the capacity for selfless good, for true love, for unflinching courage in the face of impossible odds. Maybe we hope that in the pursuit of these lofty, perhaps unattainable hopes, we might all be a bit more… steadfast. And maybe this fairytale–told with blazing creativity that soars to heights few among us can imagine–might remind us of a time when the holidays glowed with endless possibility and love and made us feel hopeful in a way most of us have long since forgotten.
The Steadfast Tin Soldier is playing at the Lookingglass Theatre at 821 N Michigan Ave, Chicago until January 26th. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and at theatreinchicago.com.