Arts & Events

Mark Morris Revives THE HARD NUT

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Saturday December 16, 2017 - 05:30:00 PM

On Friday evening, December 15, Mark Morris Dance Group opened their perennial Christmas favorite, The Hard Nut, for an extensive run through December 24 at Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall. It’s been more than twenty-five years since Mark Morris premiered The Hard Nut, which of course is his quirky take on Tchaikovsky’s beloved ballet The Nutcracker. Based on the story The Nutcracker and the Mouseking by E.T.A. Hoffman, this charming tale involves the Christmas Eve dreams of a young girl, often named Clara, although in Mark Morris’s The Hard Nut she is called Marie.  

For this production Mark Morris Dance group was joined by Berkeley Symphony led by Colin Fowler and Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir, Ensemble. After a “miniature Overture,” orchestrated without the lower string instruments, the curtain rises on the Christmas Eve party of Mr. & Mrs. Stahlbaum and their children – Fritz, Marie, and Louise. In The Hard Nut, which Mark Morris now sets in an American home of the 1950s, the children sit on the floor in front of a television set, watching a simulated fireplace burning a simulated Yule Log. Marie is performed by Lauren Grant, Fritz by Brian Lawson, and Louise by Lesley Garrison. Mark Morris himself takes the stage as Mr. Stahlbaum/King, while Mrs. Stahlbaum/Queen is danced in drag by John Heginbotham. In preparation for the party, Mrs. Stahlbaum indulges in a few drinks. As the guests arrive, Mr. Stahlbaum organizes dances – a polka, hokey-pokey, hesitation, stroll, bump, waltz. Various male guests sport Elvis or Buddy Holly haircuts, and the women wear fifties-style outfits. Drosselmeier, a friend of the family, arrives and dispenses gifts for the children, including a nutcracker. Fritz manages to break the nutcracker, but Marie solicitously places the nutcracker in a spot where it is safe. In the role of Drosselmeier, Billy Smith is a lean and supple figure, moving with ease and grace. In the role of Mr. Stahlbaum, Mark Morris presides over the party with flowing arm-and-hand gestures, as if conjuring up gaiety out of the thin air of a suburban fifties bourgeois American household. Brandon Randolph dances with great panache the role of the Stahlbaums’ African-American maid. As part of the entertainment, Mr. Stahlbaum presents a robot and a Barbie Doll, who dance quite mechanically for the amusement of the party guests. Spencer Ramirez dances the Robot, and Elisa Clark dances the Barbie Doll. Eventually, the party breaks up and the guests leave. The children are hastened to bed, and Mr. & Mrs. Stahlbaum clean up with the help of their maid. 

During the night, Marie is unable to sleep and checks to see if the nutcracker is resting comfortably. At midnight she is frightened by rats. Electronically controlled toy rats whirl about her, then turn into giant rats danced by troop members in rat costumes. G.I. Joe soldiers sporting machine guns come to Marie’s rescue and battle the rats. The nutcracker, danced by Aaron Loux, helps fight the rats by taking on the Rat King, danced by Utafumi Takemura. Marie deals the coup de grâce to the dying Rat King with a blow of her slipper. Marie is then tucked into bed, while Drosselmeier, who has witnessed the battle, makes his way home through a blizzard. The corps de ballet dances to the blizzard, throwing sparkling snowflakes in the air as they cavort in the snow. The orchestra is joined by the children’s choir. Act I ends to great applause. 

After intermission, Drosselmeier returns to the Stahlbaum home where Marie is in bed with a fever. Drosselmeier, a great storyteller, offers Marie one of his favorite stories. He tells the tale of a King and Queen who had a beautiful baby daughter, Pirlipat, whose face was badly disfigured by the Rat Queen, danced by Utafumi Takemura. Pirlipat is danced by Lesley Garrison. It is decreed that Pirlipat will only regain her beauty if a young suitor can crack the hard nut with his teeth. The King orders Drosselmeier to search the world for the hard nut. If Drosselmeier fails, warns the King, he will be decapitated. 

Now the stage set is dominated by an electrically lit map of the world, and Drosselmeier travels far and wide in search of the hard nut. In Spain, he witnesses a Spanish dance performed by Domingo Estrada, Jr., and Amber Star Merkens. In Arabia, (which on the map is confusingly located in Morocco), he watches an Arabian dance led by Elisa Clark. In China, he is beguiled by a Chinese dance performed by Janelle Barry, Mica Bernas, and John Eirich. Next he ventures to Russia and a Russian dance is performed by six dancers. Finally, he goes to France, where four dancers entertain him. Returning to the Stahlbaum home with the hard nut, Drosselmeier introduces several suitors for Pirlipat’s hand. Two suitors fail, but the third, Drosselmeier’s own nephew, succeeds in cracking the hard nut with his teeth. Young Drosselmeier kills the rat Queen, but he begins taking on the shape and demeanor of the nutcracker toy. Pirlipat rejects him as her suitor, but Marie steps forward to offer her love to young Drosselmeier. Mrs. Stahlbaum acknowledges Marie’s blossoming maturity by leading a dance of the flowers. The young Drosselmeier and Marie go off to live happily ever after; and, at last, Fritz and Louise are sent off to bed, as The Hard Nut comes to a close.  

With choreography by Mark Morris, set design by Adrienne Lobel, costumes by Martin Pakledinaz, and lighting by James F. Ingalls, The Hard Nut offers an affectionate, though somewhat jaded, take on Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. For dates and times of performances of The Hard Nut, check the website of Cal Performances.