Through Dec. 28
Round House Theatre
4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda
Will Gartshore’s relationship with Bethesda’s Round House Theatre is not new. In 2005, he delightfully assayed an amphibian in “A Year with Frog and Toad,” and more recently he played a bisexual Gallic lothario in “This.” And now with “The Nutcracker,” a new holiday musical, he sort of brings together those experiences to play Monkey — a cheeky French sock monkey to be precise.
“Had the request to play Monkey come from anyone other than director Joe Calarco, I would have probably passed on the project and went on vacation for the holidays,” says Gartshore. “But because it was him I couldn’t resist.”
Not widely produced since its premiere at Chicago’s House Theater in 2007, “The Nutcracker” created by Jake Minton (book and lyrics), Phillip Klapperich (book), and Kevin O’Donnell (music) is about a contemporary family whose Marine son Fritz is killed in battle just before Christmas. His parents and younger sister Clara are, of course, devastated. The plot then fast-forwards to the following Christmas when magical Uncle Drosselmeyer shows up and presents Clara with a gift — a nutcracker made in the image of Fritz. She is thrilled. Her still depressed parents are not. At midnight the nutcracker transforms into Fritz and helps Clara, along with a humorous contingent of toys-come-to-life, including Monkey, Doll and Robot, wage battle against a band of Christmas-hating, red-eyed rats.
Round House’s family-friendly production opens with a charming pantomime ballet. The evergreen on the door has yet to be swapped out for a wreath of black mourning and guests are arriving for a happy Christmas party. Before donning his sock monkey suit, Gartshore briefly plays flamboyant, fun-loving partygoer Marcel. “In the stage directions,” says the out actor, “Marcel is described as a longtime bachelor and family friend. So I sort of took that and ran with it.”
Though he’d seen the ballet as a kid and knows Tchaikovsky’s score, Gartshore didn’t know this version. “In the first days of rehearsal we learned the show but also read the original story that inspired both the ballet and our play [E.T.A. Hoffmann’s 1816 short story ‘The Nutcracker and Mouse King’]. It’s really dark and whack, sort of like an acid trip. Joe [Calarco] got the ballet out of our head and we went with the story.” Calarco also had the cast (which besides Gartshore includes Lauren Williams, Erin Weaver, Evan Casey, Vincent Kempski, Sherri L. Edelen, Mitchel Hébert and Lawrence Raymond) watch a documentary titled “Last Letters Home,” a tribute to American troops killed during the Iraq war. “It was heart crushing, and it partly informed the approach to the show,” explains Gartshore.
“The Nutcracker’s” set — a sleek, blank red stage designed by James Kronzer — reminds the actor of the set from “Urinetown” (also by Kronzer), a 2006 Signature Theatre production that garnered Helen Hayes Awards for both Gartshore and Calarco. “There’s nothing onstage really but crazed creativity. It’s unleashed every night and we’re still coming up with things,” he says.
This won’t be the first time Gartshore has worked through the holidays. It comes with the profession. But he will especially miss returning to his hometown Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, for Christmas this year because his brother has a new 10-month-old baby boy. “Yes,” he says, “Uncle Will will definitely miss seeing his little nephew overdosing on presents and Christmas stimuli. On the upside, it’s fun doing a show this time of year. You get a lot of folks who are coming to celebrate the holidays. And this is a show with a lot of internal integrity that also checks the holiday box.”
Next up, Gartshore is slated to play redneck Bobby “Cracker” Barrel in “The Fix” at Signature Theatre in August.