When Damien Hinojosa and Jennifer Friedrich asked Chris Heflin to write an adaptation of the E.T.A. Hoffmann story “The Nutcracker and the King of Mice” for the Incurable Theater, the puppetry company the two founded in 2002, he was less than thrilled. “I thought, ‘Oh, geez, it’s The Nutcracker. Well, all right, if nobody else wants to do it, I’ll do it.’ I thought I was kind of biting the bullet,” he says.

Hinojosa and Friedrich, husband and wife who met while working at Redmoon Theater several years ago, had zero interest in retelling the famous ballet version of the tale. “We were like, let’s do something that’s not all sugarplum fairies,” Friedrich recalls. Instead they hoped to create something more faithful to the author’s original vision. A German Romantic whose dark fairy tales are full of psychopaths, doppelgangers, and automatons, Hoffmann influenced many writers, among them Poe and Freud. But English translations of his stories can be difficult to come by in the United States. None of the Borders or Barnes & Noble stores in Chicago has his work in stock even as Nutcracker season gets under way.

After reading the original tale and researching Hoffmann, Heflin was sold. “There’s a lot of dry humor and sarcasm pointed at aristocracy” in the story, he says. Heflin believes it resonates in the current political climate, where there’s a “different kind of aristocracy, a moneyed aristocracy, and we’ve got this useless war going on.” The most popular version of “The Nutcracker,” the one usually portrayed by ballet companies, is based on an Alexandre Dumas adaptation, which glosses over the political satire and digressions that give the original version its thematic complexity. In particular, the middle of Hoffmann’s narrative–a critical if convoluted bit of backstory entitled “The Story of the Hard Nut,” which explains the Nutcracker’s hideousness and the Mouse King’s war on the toys–is deleted entirely. (To simplify it greatly, the whole feud starts over a batch of bad sausage.)

In the Incurable production, godfather Drosselmeyer (a masked actor in a fat suit) tells this tale-within-the-tale to life-size marionettes of Marie (sometimes known as Clara in the ballet) and her brother, Fritz, on the main set, while the action is shown with shadow puppetry on a smaller side stage. Drosselmeyer is more central and creepy than he is in the ballet. “He’s very endearing, but at the same time he’s very frightening,” Hinojosa says. Drosselmeyer encourages Marie to believe what she’s seeing is real, but then mocks her in front of her parents when they scoff at her visions. The battle between mice and toys results in carnage on both sides. “All of the edge and darkness is very stylized,” Hinojosa says, though the battle scene isn’t without its slapstick moments.

Of the company members, Friedrich is most familiar with Hoffmann’s writing. She became interested in his work when she learned that one of her favorite artists, surrealist Hans Bellmer, was influenced by Hoffmann’s stories, particularly their emphasis on automatons, like Olympia in “The Sandman” or the Nutcracker. (Bellmer made life-size dolls with removable and exchangeable parts, which he then photographed.) In a book on Bellmer Friedrich saw pictures of Offenbach’s opera The Tales of Hoffmann, which is based on three Hoffmann stories and places the author in the lead role.

Friedrich moved to Chicago immediately after graduating from high school in the early 90s. She was soon performing with a “cabaretlike performance art” band called Panthersahib. They played about once a month, often building elaborate props and sets for one-off performances. “It was basically puppetry without the puppets. We were creating these miniature worlds with costumes and masks,” she says.

A few years later Friedrich won a yearlong artist’s residency at the Kunstlerhaus Bethanien institute in Berlin. While in Germany she saw The Tales of Hoffmann performed live for the first time. At the end of her residency she mounted an installation of photographs based on the three stories included in the opera plus a fourth, “The Mines of Falun,” in a labyrinthine abandoned basement in east Berlin.

When Friedrich called home to describe the exhibit to her parents, her mom reminded her of a book she’d been obsessed with as a child–a collection of images from several ballets, including The Nutcracker and Coppelia, which is loosely based on “The Sandman.” “That’s when it really clicked,” Friedrich says. “I was like, holy shit, I’m totally reliving my childhood!” Her mother sent the book, and Friedrich promptly put it on display alongside the photographs.

After returning to Chicago in 1998 she started teaching community workshops in experimental photography at Columbia College’s Center for Book and Paper Arts. She sat in on her friend Audrey Niffenegger’s letterpress class a few times, and one day a guest lecturer from Redmoon Theater brought in a video of stuff the company had been working on. “I remember feeling like this was the missing piece to my artistic puzzle,” she says. “I had been kind of dancing around the edge of puppetry for a long time, doing performance and things that involved sets and costumes, and then I saw what Redmoon was doing live and for me it was kind of a breakthrough. I called them the next day and said I wanted to work for them.”

And she did, for several years, directing children’s company productions like Beetlejuice. Near the end of 2000, in a production meeting for a winter pageant, she met Hinojosa, who was participating as an actor. They started dating in 2002 and married last September. Friedrich introduced Hinojosa to Hoffmann’s stories and showed him her photos. He was hooked. “‘The Sandman’ was the first story that really jumped out at me,” Hinojosa recalls.

The two had been talking about starting their own puppetry company, and Hinojosa suggested they adapt “The Sandman” as their first piece. Friedrich wasn’t so sure: “I had to be talked into it a little bit because I was kind of over it. But I do love the stories so much, and I felt like I’d never gotten it quite right. And I still feel that way.” They’ve mounted two productions of the story so far: first at the Chicago Humanities Festival in 2002, then another last fall at Breadline Theatre. They were less than satisfied with the results, though they may give it another try after they’ve had a break from Hoffmann. “It was our first show as an incorporated theater company, and we made a lot of mistakes,” Friedrich says. “Everyone was wearing too many hats and trying to do so much. Now it feels like a legitimate company–everyone knows what their roles are. We’re doing it right.”

For The Nutcracker and the King of Mice the company is using four types of puppets: marionettes, toy theater, shadow, and rod puppets, all handmade by the Incurable staff. The eerily lifelike marionettes each took several months to build: first, their heads, hands, and feet were sculpted out of oil-based clay, from which plaster molds were formed. Those were used to create hollow latex casts; the bodies are wood jointed with leather. Hinojosa handled the art direction along with Meredith Miller, who also worked at Redmoon and has been a part of Incurable from the start. They’ve hired nine actors (or puppeteers) and a local composer, Robert Cruz, who’ll perform his original score–no Tchaikovsky whatsoever–with a trio of musicians. Friedrich’s not getting her hands too dirty; she’s taken on the role of managing director of the company, recognizing that, when it comes to theater, it’s what she does best. “I’m not a good actor,” she says.

The focus of the production is the classic fairy-tale themes of travail and change. “That’s what gives it depth, makes it real,” Hinojosa says. “Because the growth that happens in Marie comes about through struggle. She’s seeing something that nobody else is seeing, and she’s being alienated and ridiculed because of it. The joy she experiences and the growth wouldn’t be there without the dark elements of the struggle. It’s the viciousness of the Mouse King that allows the Nutcracker to be a hero, and it’s the hardship of not having anybody believe her that allows Marie to become a hero.”

Still they’re keeping the show family friendly. “It’s not a show you really have to stretch and bend to make it appropriate for all ages,” Hinojosa says. “‘The Sandman’ you’d kinda have to stretch.” In Hoffmann’s tale, when the Mouse King visits Marie, “bloodred foam [pours] from all seven of his mouths.” Nothing quite that horrific happens in the Incurable version.

Friedrich laughs. “Our Mouse King wears poufy pants.”

The Nutcracker and the King of Mice

When: Previews Thu 12/1, 7:30 PM. Runs through 1/8; see theater listings for details.

Where: Studio Theater, Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington

Price: $15, $10 for seniors and students

Info: 773-635-0109, incurabletheater.com

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.