One and done: The Nutcracker as a solo act

Listen 2:04
Chris Davis, writer and star of 'One-Man Nutcracker,' commiserates about ballet classes during rehearsal at Plays and Players theater. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Chris Davis, writer and star of 'One-Man Nutcracker,' commiserates about ballet classes during rehearsal at Plays and Players theater. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

‘Tis the season for The Nutcracker, a classic ballet that can involve more than 200 dancers and musicians. The Pennsylvania Ballet’s production runs about two hours long, including intermission.

One theater artist in Philadelphia is putting together a production, by himself, with a 45-minute run time.

“Basically, we’re saving you time,” said Chris Davis, the creator and performer of “One Man Nutcracker.” ”You go to the Nutcracker and you’re whole day is over. You come here, you can go out, get some gifts, go about your day. And you also checked it off. You’ve seen Nutcracker this year.”

Davis, a staple of the annual Fringe Festival, goes beyond the traditional telling of The Nutcracker, back to the original E.T.A. Hoffman story and the krakatuk nut.

Chris Davis, writer and star of ‘One-Man Nutcracker,’ plays Clara and all the other roles in classic ballet. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“All he has to do is crack the nut. He takes the nut, he puts it in his mouth. Can he crack it? Can he crack it?,” he yells in performance as though he was calling a football game while wearing a tutu. He’s explaining the backstory about a young man attempting to reverse a curse that turned a beautiful maiden into an ugly nutcracker.

“She eats the core of the nut, and, Oh my god! She’s transformed! She’s back into a human!” says Davis from the stage. “And she’s smokin’ hot!”

Davis embodies about 20 different characters during the performance, and uses shadow puppetry and props to suggest a more robust production than he actually has. He strays from the story of the Nutcracker to the culture surrounding it, including the story of Tchaikovsky and how he composed the famous score.

Chris Davis, writer and star of ‘One-Man Nutcracker,’ uses shadows to create the mice. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“Tchaikovsky wrote this after the death of his sister Alexandra. He imagined himself as Drosselmeyer and Alexandra as Marie,” he said. ”We also talk about intermission. What’s intermission like? There are kids everywhere with snot coming out of them. They haven’t washed their hands.”

Davis has his own personal history with the classic holiday staple. A few years ago, he started dating a professional ballet dancer in New Jersey, and so has seen to Nutcracker every year. He thought it would be a hoot to distill the dance down to its essential parts.

Chris Davis, writer and star of ‘One-Man Nutcracker,’ commiserates about ballet classes during rehearsal at Plays and Players theater. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The narrative of The Nutcracker ramps up quickly in act one, with festive characters streaming in for a Christmas party, the mysterious clockmaker Drosselmeyer, and a valiant battle with a mouse army.

The second act, however, loses all the narrative drive of the first as it goes into a series of fantasy dance tableaus, including the signature Sugar Plum Fairy.

Davis insists he does not shirk the dancing in his version; granted he is playing it for farce. He did, however, take ballet classes to prepare for the role. He wanted to give the Land of the Sweets his best effort.

This is not Davis’ first attempt to boil a sprawling work down to a scrappy solo act. A few years ago he developed “One-Man Apocalypse Now” for the Philly Fringe Festival.

At 37, with much performance experience but little dancing under his belt, Davis is unlikely to be a virtuoso. Nevertheless, his exposure to ballet gave him a fresh appreciation for the art form.

Chris Davis, writer and star of ‘One-Man Nutcracker,’ as the uncle Drosselmeyer in rehearsal. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“To re-center and get into your own body and embrace your own body as it changes and ages, I think ballet is a good way of addressing those things,” he said.

Davis is running his “One-Man Nutcracker” in direct competition with the Pennsylvania Ballet. His showtimes at Plays and Players Theater in Rittenhouse Square are at the same times as those of the Nutcracker at the Academy of Music.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal