Marionette-like figures in colorful, exaggerated costumes dance on and off the stage, opening little doors to reveal light boxes with wreaths, dolls, and other tokens of Christmastime before Mary Zimmerman’s transcendent adaptation of this Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale even begins. It’s a signal that there’s something special behind closed doors and, indeed, this production is a delight from start to finish, all the more amazing for the fact that nary a word is uttered.
The story of a one-legged toy soldier’s travails is told through pantomime, evocative puppetry (by Chicago Puppet Studio), and the ingenious use of props to seamlessly move the narrative along. When words appear, they’re printed on toy blocks, in thought balloons, or as song. Yet scene to scene, whether it’s the soldier, ballerina, rat, or fish, the characters change scale and dimension as is usually only possible in books or animation. We see an actor disappear behind a fluttering sheet that stands in for water or fire and reemerge as a doll and not for a moment do we suspend belief. Such is the spell that these magicians cast.
I have not been a child for a very long time and don’t know what kids like these days, but this performance filled me with a kind of preverbal wonder. Unlike so much holiday treacle, Lookingglass’s production doesn’t sugarcoat the tragedy inherent in old fairy tales. It’s worth at least a bushelful of moldy Peter Pans and Nutcrackers and deserves to be performed every year in their place. I had a smile on my face the whole time, except when I was wiping away tears. v