Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photo by Liz Lauren.
Every once in a while you come across a new play that is just simply charming, one that will be good for all audiences, is thoroughly entertaining and original, and looks to be an instant classic. That show, for this year, is Mary Zimmerman’s The Steadfast Tin Soldier, now playing at Lookingglass Theatre.
The title character of this one-hour long visual extravaganza, based on a fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson, is a one-legged tin soldier played by puppets (by Chicago Puppet Design) and by Alex Stein. We first see him being discarded by a giant baby due to his deformity, and that is the least of what happens to him. Throughout the play, he will be tormented by a malevolent jack-in-the-box and an equally horrendous older brother, as well as tossed out a window, eaten by a fish, buried in the sand, set upon by a rat, and tossed into a furnace. This is worse than Alexander’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.
Still, armed with a love for a toy ballerina (Kasey Foster), he perseveres. Stein is wonderful as the disabled soldier, flopping and hopping and dragging himself around as needed, and Foster is a lovely dancer (the complete opposite of the soldier in physical ability), and these two make an unlikely but glowing couple as they meet, lose each other, meet again, and undergo a final event that is at once melancholy and beautiful. (If you’ve ever actually read Anderson, you know that he isn’t one for totally happy endings. Let’s just say that “The Little Mermaid” doesn’t exactly end like the movie.) It argues that even death is not a finality if love is involved.
Zimmerman propels her story along using only five actors to play a multitude of parts and to maneuver the many excellent puppets. (I was actually surprised at the end how few of them there were.) There is no dialogue here at all; the storytelling is all in pantomime (sometimes, as with the Rat and the peddler, both played by John Gregario, utterly hilarious) and set to a gorgeous original score by Andre Pluess and Amanda Dehnert played by four musicians under the direction of Leandro López Várady. The other two live actors in the show are Christopher Donohue, who plays a wonderfully funny Nursemaid, and Anthony Irons, all sinewy malice as the Goblin from the jack-in-the-box. Irons’ movement alone is a reason to see this play: you believe completely that this is how a jack outside of the box would move.
Tracy Walsh’s choreography tells the story every bit as much as the music and the actors, and the story is indeed a feast for the eyes. To that end, Ana Kuzmanic’s amazing costumes draw theatregoers in even before the play begins, as actors take part in a “countdown” of sorts using a giant Advent calendar that acts as the curtain in Todd Rosenthal’s set. Additional visual elements are brought in by “circus choreographer” Sylvia Hernandez-DeStasi. As I said, this show is from start to finish a visual treat.
There is simply no reason not to see The Steadfast Tin Soldier. The show leaps into my list of best plays of the year, and at only an hour long it won’t eat up much of your evening. Children below five might be a bit frightened by some of the elements, but otherwise this is a beautiful, brilliantly-realized play for all ages. If I still gave stars, it would easily get four of them; Zimmerman has once again hit a home run for Lookingglass. It is the perfect play for the season.
The Steadfast Tin Soldier is a Lookingglass Theatre production now playing at 821 N Michigan Ave, Chicago, through Jan 13. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and at theatreinchicago.com.