Theater Info for the Washington DC region

Synetic Family Theater The Nutcracker

By • Dec 24th, 2010 • Category: Reviews
The Nutcracker
Synetic Family Theater
Crystal City Theater, Arlington, VA
Through January 16th
75 minutes
$17.50 in advance, $20 at door
Reviewed December 23rd, 2010

When one thinks of The Nutcracker, one often thinks of tutus, dancers from foreign lands, a little girl named Clara and the gift she receives from her mysterious godfather, Herr Drosselmeier. The story of the nutcracker soldier and the mouse king is buried between the opening party and these fancies seen after the battle is over. Unquestionably, Tchaikovsky’s ballet has withstood the test of time, becoming one of the most beloved of Christmas holiday traditions in some families.

You can approach such a work with the eyes and expectations of a traditionalist, or you can do what Synetic Family Theater’s director Lilia Slavova has done. She returns to E.T.A. Hoffman’s original, dark, fantasy world and reimagines the tale for a new audience. The results are storytelling at its finest. The Nutcracker is a captivating story within a story within a story and a joy to watch, from the moment the stage lights go up, to the final moments of the short performance, a mere 75 minutes later.

There’s still some Tchaikovsky in this production, along with Stravinsky, Bach, and others, and there are several nods to the more familiar ballet version, but Slavova and sound designers Irakli Kavsadze and Konstantine Lortkipanidze have found a new voice for this fantastic and magical production that fits beautifully. In the process, they have made a complex story simpler to understand for even the youngest of theatregoers.

Unlike Synetic’s increasingly praised non-speaking classical productions (Shakespearean and otherwise), there’s plenty of talking, whooping and hollering in this rollicking adventure, though there’s also a comforting feel of improvisation rather than rehearsed dialogue. The communication between characters feels more honest and natural, enhancing the stage magic and making it more fantastic as a result.

Through an imaginative and varied use of storytelling and humor, delivered through Eric Brooks and Daniel Mori’s surprising puppetry design and the work of the play’s staging team (including Irina Tsikurishvili’s choreography and Irakli Kavsadze’s stage movement), Slavova’s adaptation and vision is brought to life. We learn the history of the Nutcracker and how he came to be in the hands of the magical Herr Drosselmeier, played by Ryan Tumulty.

Busy Dr. Stahlbaum, played by Mitch Irinski, his frazzled wife, Mrs. Stahlbaum, played by Kathryn Elizabeth Kelly, are preparing for their annual New Year’s Eve party. Their three children, Louise, played by Emily Whitworth, Fritz, played by Austin Johnson, and Marie (more familiar as the Clara character in the ballet), played by Irina Kavsadze, spend their time playing as children often do before a party, paying little heed to their parents’ pleas for decorum. The children’s French Nanny, played by Jessica Shearer Wilson, joins in the fun, exercising some measure of control over the three. When the time is right, The Nutcracker Prince, played by Dallas Tolentino, makes his appearance and rounds out this impressive cast of young performers, most of whom are making their debut with Synetic.

Combined with the artistic talents of Slavova’s simple and fanciful set, Brittany Diliberto’s lighting design, Evgenia Luzhina-Salazar’s costumes and Vanya Vasileva’s masks, the event becomes a lovely gift just waiting to be unwrapped by the audience.

There is quite enough here to entertain adults as well as children. If you have the time, make a point of seeing this production, whether or not you have kids. It’s a wonderfully rich holiday treat!

It couldn’t possibly be easier to get to the theatre space, Arena Stage’s temporary home during their recent renovation. Steps from the Crystal City metro station, with ample parking all around Crystal City, arrival was a piece of cake. Young viewers who arrive early can enjoy a quick break, with coloring pages provided to help them pass the time before the house opens, and there are plenty of restaurants within the shelter of the covered shopping area.

NOTE: While this is a family-oriented show, some scenes are a bit intense for the under-four crowd. Use your judgment in bringing very young children to the theater. The play is approximately 75 minutes long, with no intermission.

Director’s Note

Nutcracker again? Who in the world needs another one? But this fantastical subject always intrigued me, mostly because I chose to abandon the predictable story and bring a new, fresh version to the stage that has never been done. I went back to the source: E.T.A. Hoffman.

Hoffman’s story, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, was written in 1816. The story is dark and complex, and the plot is difficult to follow. However, there is something very intriguing in this story that I have always wanted to explore: the dream-like world of those imaginative characters and first love, innocent and pure.

Dramaturgically, the question of how to tell the story lay in the vital subplot – the tale within a tale. I wanted to incorporate into this fairy tale the emotion and psychological meaning of what happened to the Nutcracker and what made him who he is.

To facilitate this, I chose my favorite media – puppetry. For the fans that have been following my shows, I wanted to surprise them again. This time, I have chosen to use object puppetry with boxes. I never understood the traditional Nutcracker ballet as [a] little girl, and I am hoping that through this technique, most of the little kids and adults will understand and follow this version of the story.

In terms of story elements, the idea of Marie wanting to be a ballerina and improve her dancing came from the fact that I have seen so many girls going to see the Nutcracker ballet wearing beautiful ballet clothes, all of them ready to immerse themselves in the dream world of the story. From a sound design perspective, Irakli Kavsadze and I decided not to use the entire score of Tchaikovsky and have discovered other composers and styles to tell the story. Finally, the idea for the presents was simply born from the necessity to fill in the big space and make a cozy environment for the kids to enjoy the show and celebrate their birthdays.

Thanks to my incredible cast: working with such a young group of actors was a pleasure and I cherish every moment that we spend together. I also want to thank all my crew [for] their hard work to make this production possible. Special thanks to my right hand and stage manager, Betsy Summers, Phil Charlwood (I call him The Magician), Brittany Diliberto, Lawson Earl and Seth Finkle – all hard working and dedicated people!

Finally, thank you, our Synetic Family audience, for your ongoing support. Enjoy the show!

Lilia Slavova

Photo Gallery

Austin Johnson as Fritz, Emily Whitworth as Louise and Dalles Tolentino as the Nutcracker Ryan Tumulty as the Mouse King and Dallas Tolentino as the Nutcracker
Austin Johnson as Fritz, Emily Whitworth as Louise and Dalles Tolentino as the Nutcracker
Ryan Tumulty as the Mouse King and Dallas Tolentino as the Nutcracker
Irina Kavsadze as Marie Jessica Shearer Wilson, Kathryn Elizabeth Kelly, Austin Johnson and Emily Whitworth with
Irina Kavsadze as Marie
Jessica Shearer Wilson, Kathryn Elizabeth Kelly, Austin Johnson and Emily Whitworth with “object puppets”

Photos by Yulia Kriskovets.


  • Dr. Stahlbaum, Toy Ensemble, Rat, King: Mitch Irzinski
  • Fritz, Rat, Toy Ensemble: Austin Johnson
  • Marie, Toy Ensemble: Irina Kavsadze
  • Mrs. Stahlbaum, Rat, Toy Ensemble, Queen: Kathryn Elizabeth Kelly
  • Nutcracker Prince, Drosselmeier’s Nephew, Toy Ensemble: Dallas Tolentino
  • Drosselmeier, King of Mice: Ryan Tumulty
  • Louise Stahlbaum, Toy Ensemble, Rat, Pirlipat: Emily Whitworth
  • The Nanny, Toy Ensemble, Rat, Madam Mouserinks: Jessica Shearer Wilson

Production Staff

  • Founding Artistic Director: Paata Tsikurishvili
  • Managing Director: Salma Qarnain
  • Producing Director, Synetic Family Theater: Irakli Kavsadze
  • Adaptation & Director: Lilia Slavova
  • Choreography: Irina Tsikurishvili
  • Stage Movement: Irakli Kavsadze
  • Set & Props: Lilia Slavova
  • Puppet Design & Construction: Eric Brooks & Daniel Mori
  • Costume Design & Construction: Evgenia Luzhina-Salazar
  • Mask Design & Construction: Vanya Vasileva
  • Lighting Design: Brittany Diliberto
  • Sound Design: Irakli Kavsadze & Konstantine Lortkipanidze
  • Technical Director: Phil Charwood
  • Stage Manager: Betsy Summers
  • Dance Captain: Kathryn Elizabeth Kelly
  • Fight Choreography: Ben Cunis
  • Assistant Lighting Designer: Lawson Earl
  • Drawing of The Nutcracker: Evgenia Luzhina-Salazar
  • Graphic Designer: Lisa Lansing
  • Videographer: Abby Sternberg
  • Production Manager: Seth Finkle
  • Master Electrician: Aaron Waxman
  • Musical Selections: Konstantine Lortkipanidze, Giya Kancheli, Igor Stravinsky, Alfred Schnittke, Bach, Tchaikovsky, Gubaidulina, Beethoven

Disclaimer: Synetic Family Theater provided three complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.

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is founder and Artistic Director of OutOftheBlackBox Theatre Company (O2B2) and General Manager of the Greenbelt Arts Center. Since 2006 Betsy has worked as a director, producer, designer and more. Betsy has also worked with Washington Revels, Arena Stage, the now-defunct Harlequin Dinner Theatre and with community theatre companies both in Maryland and in upstate New York. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Technical Theatre from SUNY New Paltz. Through Hawkeswood Productions, Betsy produces archival performance videos and YouTube highlight spots.

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