The Nutcracker, like A Christmas Carol, is one of those holiday stories that’s so omnipresent it’s impossible to avoid the occasional parody. The Buttcracker, produced by (Sub)Version Productions, offers a burlesque twist on the classic tale. Unfortunately, this attempted mix of the erotic and the comedic falls flat.
The show opens in an office space rife with beige, where protagonist Clara is hosting a holiday party. She has a meet-cute with the office custodian before getting in trouble with her Boss for hiring a burlesque dancer to perform at the party. Clara is promptly fired. After a few mediocre magic tricks, the burlesque dancer transports Clara to the Land of Sweets, where she meets the Sugar Bum Fairy and defeats the evil Rat King. So far, so familiar, short a bit of twerking and the general skimpiness of the costumes. Perhaps the one genuinely fun element of the first act is the reunion of Clara and her love interest from the top of the show, which is gay in every sense of the word.
The issue here, I think, is that burlesque simply doesn’t require an overarching plot. Even if it did, this would not be the way to execute it. Sans dialogue, the story is told entirely through music and movement, but not in an artful way. Emotions and events are conveyed in the broadest of strokes, with over-the-top facial expressions and gestures reminiscent of my days teaching children’s theatre. Clara’s firing, for example, takes the form of the Boss handing her an enormous pink slip labeled, in case it wasn’t clear enough, “PINK SLIP” in a bold font. The show doesn’t seem to trust that the audience will understand its simple storyline without having it spelled out for them, as additionally illustrated by the unnecessarily lengthy synopsis in the program.
The second act starts off even weaker than the first, with Clara and the ensemble inexplicably recreating the events of the first act in an “instant replay,” as though perhaps the fifteen-minute intermission had wiped our memories of it. This is repeated a second time at an increased speed, akin to the way educators will up the tempo of “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” to retain the interest of toddlers. Thankfully, the tedious reenactments stop after two, and instead Clara, her love interest, and the Sugar Bum Fairy retire to the side of the stage to allow for the solo performers, who change regularly from performance to performance, to do their thing.
Luckily, the solo performers at my performance were fantastic, and offered welcome relief from the schlocky acting and uninspired dancing of the rest of the show. Even this strongest section of the performance, however, suffers from awkward transitions between routines. In a more traditional burlesque, there is an emcee to guide the audience from one performance to the next; here, although music plays, the effect is of the audience and actors staring on in silence for an uncomfortably long period as clothing and props are cleared from the stage.
Mostly, I wanted more out of The Buttcracker. More charm, more humor, more impressive dancing. Instead, the performance is lackluster. Sparkles and exposed skin cannot make a quality burlesque by themselves, and The Buttcracker is evidence of this.
Location: The Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave
Dates: November 30 – December 30, 2023
All photos by Matthew Gregory Hollis.