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Review: The Steadfast Tin Soldier Is Surefooted Holiday Escapism for These Unsteady Times

Alex Stein and Artistic Associate Kasey Foster. Photo by Liz Lauren.

Mary Zimmerman’s The Steadfast Tin Soldier is the theatrical equivalent of a gift under the tree on Christmas morning; it’s warm, heartfelt, and wrapped nicely in a bright holiday bow. The puppetry and theatrical invention is beautifully rendered, and the performers are generous and perfectly in tune with the sensibilities of this material. It’s true holiday escapism, and a home run for Lookingglass Theatre Company’s brand of classic spectacle.

Based on a fairytale by Hans Christian Andersen, this impressive production employs five actors to populate the story of a one-legged toy soldier, his love for a paper ballerina, and the miniature odyssey that keeps them apart. Working from her own script, Zimmerman develops this tale in the style of British holiday pantomime, with scarcely a line of dialogue (save some bits of cleverly positioned text that is as delightful as it is informative). On the Lookingglass stage, the tale unfurls on both miniature and life-size levels, zooming in and out between the drama of the toys and the people who own them.

A particularly inspired thread is that of the toddler, who begins giant, disembodied as a floating head and hands, operated by three actors, shown in the opening playing with his tin soldiers, tossing them to and fro, a moment that is at once awe-inspiring and curiously terrifying; elsewhere he is portrayed as a two-story tall peering eye, and an appropriately toddler-sized puppet that steals each scene he’s in.

That’s not to say that the humans are entirely out-shined here. They each bring an elegant sense of style, and a brilliant display of physical humor. Alex Stein as the titular tin soldier invites reference to another metal man, with his stiff stumbling and wide-eyed innocence; Kasey Foster’s ballerina is the graceful heart of this story; Christopher Donahue manages a delightful arc for the stone-faced, no nonsense Maid; and John Gregorio is excellent as a giant, bureaucratic Rat. But it is Anthony Irons as the villainous Goblin who deserves special mention here. It’s a grotesque, flailing performance–my date for the night remarked that she could watch him grin and slither across the stage for an entire evening without growing bored.

There’s some exquisite original music by Andre Pluess and Amanda Dehnert that scores the proceedings with a vintage, European flair, and the live orchestra (Leonardo López Várady, Greg Hirte, Michal Palzewicz, and Constance Volk) are so good it’s almost distracting. No worries though, we are invited to watch them play–they even interact with the action onstage in some moments of hearty humor. And I was struck with a real sense of antiquity; from T.J. Gerkens’ warm, golden lighting and Todd Rosenthal’s grand, operatic sets to Anna Kuzmanic’s storybook costumes and Tom Lee and Blair Thomas’ lovingly fabricated puppets, the design elements coalesce to deliver a truly seamless aesthetic. It’s a majestic accomplishment, climaxing in our heroes’ beautiful, heartbreaking final embrace that evokes a silent film come to life.

Throughout Tin Soldier I was reminded of the old fashioned morality of a Pixar film, not just in the obvious parallels to Toy Story (I’m now convinced that those filmmakers were well aware of Andersen’s tale during production) but also WALL-E and certain movements of Up (each of which masterfully combine music and dialogue-free storytelling to illicit pure, earnest emotion). And what’s more impressive is how Zimmerman and team always manage to keep the story central to our experience, and in doing so maintain the sense of magic and mystery of true theatrical invention. There’s wonder, heart, humor, wit, and craftsmanship to behold here, all the more important to experience in these unsteady times we occupy. Merry Christmas, Chicago.
The Steadfast Tin Soldier continues through January 13 at Lookingglass Theatre Company, 821 N. Michigan Ave. Tickets are $45-$75.
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