Holiday productions are commonly regarded as soft and fuzzy cash cows, sugary shows engineered to get the maximum number of paying customers’ butts into seats between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. Ambitious productions like Jon Ferguson’s S. Gunter Klaus and Joseph Scrimshaw’s Fat Man Crying push the envelope, but nothing else I’ve seen in town shreds, burns, and pisses on the smoldering ashes of the envelope like John Munger’s Nutbuster!!
Nutbuster!! is a bracing little one-man show, enacted in the tiny Bryant-Lake Bowl Theater and clocking in at just about 40 minutes—making the hour-long An “Eventually” Christmas seem like Lawrence of Arabia. It’s a sort of fantasia on a fantasia, a re-imagining of The Nutcracker as a pathetic mirage in the addled mind of an aging, lonely guy named Drosselmeyer. About half of the recorded soundtrack consists of straightforward performances of excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s score and about half consists of remixes, remakes, and rewrites of the score as it’s been used and misused in decades of popular music.
On a near-empty stage, with minimal props—principally a chair, a little-girl doll, and a (very) adult lifesize doll—Munger lurches, lunges, and leaps about, pausing frequently to take swigs from a bottle of booze. Munger, who blogs for the Daily Planet but whom I’ve never met in person, is an unlikely but lithe and compelling performer. Having taught, choreographed, and performed for decades, he’s on the long side of A Certain Age, and he carries a Santalike belly; when he moves, though, he’s electric. The Nutbuster!! choreography incorporates elements from any number of styles, and Munger handles them all with aplomb.
What’s most remarkable about Munger’s vision is that it feels like he’s opened a door to a gaping crevasse that he proceeds to only skirt the edge of. Like Ferguson does in S. Gunter Klaus, Munger looks behind the curtain of Christmas, the collective fantasy that billions of people treat (and experience) as an unassailable fact. Most provocatively, Munger challenges the audience to consider whether it matters, when enjoying a beautiful and transcendent fantasy, who created that fantasy and for what reason.
Munger’s sharp but fundamentally good-hearted humor keeps Nutbuster!! from sliding into truly disturbing territory; bonbons like a nervous bathroom-waiting hop keep the mood relatively light, and the audience I saw the show with on its closing night laughed often. Pedophilia, a subject you might expect to be broached in a no-holds-barred excavation of Drosselmeyer’s soul, is not addressed at all; and a final twist-atop-a-twist concludes the show on a light note.
But despite the humorous touches, Munger is dead serious about turning The Nutcracker on its head. The climax of Nutbuster!! is a pas de deux as harrowing as just about anything you’re likely to see on a local stage: to the music written for the Sugar Plum Fairy’s dance with her Cavalier, Munger whirls an erotic blow-up doll across the stage, twisting her limbs into sick parodies of classical ballet positions. It’s effectively creepy, but it’s not just a shock tactic: it resonates with the music, which is not included in the festive, condensed Nutcracker Suite and is actually quite stormy.
Nutbuster!! will remind knowledgeable viewers that Tchaikovsky lived what was in many respects a miserable life, marked by struggles with depression and the necessity of hiding his homosexuality. What if the composer had gone completely mad and been left alone in a room, the transcendent Nutcracker score trapped inside his wounded brain? Would it have been any less beautiful? I suspect that John Munger thinks the answer is no.
|This event is featured in the Daily Planet’s complete guide to holiday theater. Throughout the holiday season, the guide will be updated with links to new Daily Planet reviews—so you know who’s been naughty and who’s been nice.|