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A kingdom of sweets

Clockwise, from top: Douglass Burks, Trish Long, Kathy Burks, and B. Wolf, with Sarah Jayne Fiorello, are all left in the dark when it comes to the puppetry of The Nutcracker.

My slightly freaked-out attitude toward puppet shows (the more fluid and effective the puppeteers, the bigger the freak-out) is perhaps best explained by historical example. The Roman Catholic Church once relied heavily on puppets as evangelical devices used to illustrate Biblical stories about the birth and death of Christ and the life of the Virgin Mary. Then, around the Middle Ages, the little knotheads begin to fart and curse and hump each other inside the serene tableaux of missionary work. The church, of course, promptly kicked them into the gutters with the whores and thieves, declaring puppets blasphemous forms of idolatry. The puppeteers resumed their high jinks in traveling carnivals and annual festivals, turning at times to outright satire of the church and state.

Now, puppeteers were always rumored to be about as couth as carny workers, so no doubt their own drunken misadventures were being sent like electrical currents through the strings and rods, but the potential for anarchy seems imminent to me in any puppet display. Natural laws are already being broken when inanimate objects are given voice and motion and attitude, so who's to say where the madness will stop?

This is in no way an attempt to scare parents away from The Nutcracker, a production by Kathy Burks Theatre of Puppetry as hosted by Dallas Children's Theater that has, for the past three years, been developing quite a reputation as a holiday alternative for adults and children who have been Scrooged till they're sore. I don't think you have to worry about fielding questions from 6-year-olds after Clara is mounted by the Mouse King; there's nary an invasion of nasty reality in this lovely production that's as simple in narrative as it is ornate (and, occasionally, even hallucinatory) in delivery. It was just the easily spooked 30-year-old in me, gripping the arm rests in sweaty apprehension of being charged by mouse soldiers.

Kathy Burks Theatre of Puppetry is the oldest continuously producing entity of its kind in the Southwest: It was formed in 1973 as a marionette revue, but metamorphosed when Burks' collection of 1,000 or so antique string puppets from the '20s proved too fragile for regular performance. So it's interesting to note that only since 1996, when Dallas Children's Theater stepped in to co-produce The Nutcracker, has it had a Yuletide cash cow suckled by wide word-of-mouth. You may think you just can't have your nuts cracked one more time come the month of December, and you're not alone: The nastiest rumor involving Dallas Theater Center's venerable A Christmas Carol is that it plays constantly to half-empty houses, thus necessitating a "rescue" grant from The Meadows Foundation to rethink and amp up the appeal of a rickety little warhorse that DTC can no longer rely on in a competitive season.

I say this has less to do with cynical, attention-deficit contemporary ticketbuyers than with a legitimate desire for freshly minted classics. I'll take Joe Mantello's stage adaptation of David Sedaris' writings, The Santaland Diaries -- currently playing at Fort Worth Theatre and about to open in Dallas at Theatre For a New Day -- any day. And screw It's a Wonderful Life: The Nightmare Before Christmas and A Christmas Story are the video rentals that keep the cockles of my heart all toasty.

For The Nutcracker, Kathy Burks and her fellow puppeteers and voice artists (including Douglass Burks, B. Wolf, Sarah Jayne Fiorello, and Trish Long) haven't done anything outlandishly new, nor have they done it in a new way. Black theater rod puppetry -- in which the humans wear all pitch and project the puppets forward into a thin sheet of light while concealing themselves behind it -- is centuries old. But they bring a smashing degree of professionalism to E.T.A. Hoffman's 1813 tale -- which was, in its original form, written as a sinister Grimm-style fantasia with intimations of rape that would raise the haunches of all manner of parents' groups these days. Of course, the modern-day version bears little resemblance to its origins, having been re-envisioned by Alexander Dumas and then immortalized by Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker Ballet (one musn't forget George Balanchine's definitive choreography).

The Nutcracker has been peered at through myriad lenses over the decades, and adapter B. Wolf had quite a job on her hands, sifting through the layers of influence that have coated this story like a sedimentary rock. Wolf and Burks decided that the show could not be delivered without Tchaikovksy's score, so this becomes the engine that drives the adventures of young Clara, and the conductor becomes Tchaikovsky himself.

The show opens with the diminutive Russian composer traveling on a train through the French countryside, struggling to express a melody that is itself straining to move outside of his white-haired head. The notes pop out and dance a jig with the composer and his sheet music, and a masterpiece is almost born. Until that can happen, Tchaikovsky insists he must be the first to use a celesta, a small keyboard that produces the shimmery starburst notes everyone associates with "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies." Although Tchaikovsky's composition will be omnipresent throughout this production, the man himself will not be: In a bit of very '90s self-referentialism, a puppet puppeteer steps out, pulls off the black cowl, and impatiently announces that the other puppeteers are getting hot back there and can we please get on with the show? My irony-scrambled brain would love to see an entire puppet show performed by puppet puppeteers, commenting on the job of puppeteering the whole time.

Kathy Burks' The Nutcracker is divided into two acts: The first tells the story of how our eponymous, wooden-jawed hero rescues young Clara from The Mouse King and his soldiers, and the second tells of their (honeymoon?) jaunt to the Kingdom of the Sweets. The battle between Nutcracker and rodent armada is indeed entertaining, with much smoke and fire and sparks and a daring last-minute rescue by Clara. But the real achievement in this production is the second act, a cabaret-style revue of puppet dance delivered without words.

The chances of this happening are slimmer than Calista Flockhart, but if Kathy Burks wants to open her company's art to an entire new audience, maybe she ought to consider posting fliers at the Gas Pipe: This stuff is a trip for that certain demographic waiting to be tripped out. The movement sequences during The Kingdom of the Sweets visit feature a toy soldier who can't keep his multiple heads together, miniature dolls who do some mean Russian kick-dancing, and (best of all) a prissy French poodle who seems to be auditioning, with all his heart and soul, for Balanchine's company.

John Hardman of Le Theatre de Marionette, a lifetime puppeteer, once told me that stage actors who became puppeteers claim their work with strings and rods actually enhances their live, single-bodied performances. I can't really fathom that type of projection, a circular pathway between flesh person and wood person. Still, knowing that and trying to understand it makes the mystery of puppetry that much eerier again.


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