Nutcracker Meets Erotica

Entering the Minetta Lane Theatre last Saturday night for Nutcracker Rouge, I was not quite sure what to expect. I first heard of Company XIV just two years ago and soon became familiar with their growing reputation for borrowing from multiple performative traditions and taking them to another level. The company, brainchild of art director/choreographer/founder Austin McCormick, is an acclaimed multidisciplinary troupe whose unique blend of jazz, opera, vaudeville, burlesque and old-time theatrics have been shaking up the theater scene since its founding in 2006. With this in mind, I was naturally curious of what was in store for me and it was not long after I crossed the threshold into the lobby that I would soon find out for myself.

Setting the tone way before the house even opened, I was immediately greeted with a haze of red light – which would also fill into the performance space itself – and the sounds of Ella Fitzgerald’s jazzy vocals pervading the lobby. Attendants dressed in snazzy, old-fashioned garb offered drinks and as the place started to brim with conversing theatergoers, I started to feel immersed into another world, as if by taking that step across the threshold, I had literally taken a step back in time. This feeling only increased as the night wore on, beginning with my entrance into the Minetta’s cozy space, which was awash with the aforementioned red (or shall we say, rouge) light and cloudy with smoke, ready for our viewing pleasure.

The world of Nutcracker Rouge is one rife with human contortionists, cross-dressing 18th-century fops, harlequins, aerialists, flamenco dancers and cabaret singers. Indeed, this is not your grandmother’s Nutcracker. Just as young Clara is swept into a different world in her sleep, so are we as soon as we enter the theater. In the red light of the theater, we follow a young woman in a Baroque dress named Marie-Claire (this production’s Clara, if you will) as she literally makes her way through the audience and to the stage, where she is presented with a nutcracker of her very own by her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Drosselmeyer.

With the twinkling first notes of Tchaikovsky’s iconic score in the background, Marie-Claire falls into a deep fantasy – but it is not a mouse kingdom she encounters. Instead she finds herself among a band of performers in a place called the Kingdom of the Sweets, a sensual cabaret show where all your desires are revealed. Leading this kingdom of misfits are the Drosselmeyers, who now act as emcees and present the Sweets: 10 performing acts, all of which are designed to titillate and enchant. There are the Cherries, a trio of dancers; Turkish Delight, a gymnast; Candy Cane, a Cyr wheel performer; Candied Violets; Chocolate, an enthralling flamenco dancer; the Licorice boys, a trio of cross-dressing doms; Champagne, where we toast Marie-Claire's journey at the start of the second act; Cake, from whence the surprise chocolate filling pops; Macaroons, where Mrs. Dross performs a rendition of Madonna's "Material Girls" amidst a hilariously raucous onstage orgy; and finally, the Sugarplum Fairy, in which Marie-Claire makes her debut.

McCormick’s choreography and staging displays a keen understanding of (and obvious passion for) aesthetics and perfectly captures the pulchritude of performance. At every turn, there is something that catches your eye; from the lighting to the sets and costume design, Nutcracker Rouge paints a striking picture. The lighting lends itself beautifully to the piece, as Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew’s cues throughout blend wonderfully with the smoke to create a hazy glow, the effect of which is stunning to witness. Zane Pihlstrom’s sets – while sparse, evidently reflect some Brechtian influence, with the exposure of not only the steel frame of the curtain but also of the performers themselves, who could be seen dressing for the next act. These devices only help to further heighten the theatrical experience. Pihlstrom’s costumes appropriately accompany the music in terms of anachronisms, juxtaposing early 20th century circus palettes and sequined gowns befitting a 1960s lounge singer against modern remixes of the original Nutcracker score and jazz standards. The result is the sweetest eye (and ear) candy of all the Sweets.

As with any truly spectacular production, it is the performers of Rouge which are the main attraction, providing the visual centerpiece to any staging. As the Drosselmeyers, both Jeff Takacs and Shelly Watson are ever the consummate actors; Takacs is the storyteller to Watson’s showstopper, injecting both humor and mystery as they help move the story along. Laura Careless as Marie-Claire exudes both the innocence and sensuality needed for the character's journey into womanhood. The performers that make up the Sweets are just as deliciously sinful as the candies they portray. A mix of Wizard of Oz meets Marie Antoinette meets Cirque du Soleil, Nutcracker Rouge is a provocative, avant-garde piece of theater that will thrill and delight.

Nutcracker Rouge is playing at the Minetta Lane Theatre (18 Minetta Lane) until Jan. 5, 2013. Performances are Monday-Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 7 p.m. There are no performances on Dec. 8, 15, 24 and Jan. 1. Tickets range from $39-$79 with premium seats starting at $99. Running time is 1 hour and 45 minutes including intermission. 

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