“It matters how you go:” Integrity, tenacity and determination as told by “The Steadfast Tin Soldier”


Photo Courtesy of Liz Lauren

The Lookingglass Theatre’s production of “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” offers audiences a lesson on how to keep dancing and continue on even when life goes up in flames.

Nixie Strazza, Theatre Critic

Warning: This review contains spoilers.

Familiar characters fill a stage done up in Christmas trimmings: a toy soldier, a ballerina, elves and a boisterous young boy. A nursemaid attempts to maintain order and sparks of love fly, but do not be fooled by these common tropes nor the delineation of “children’s theatre.” 

Accessible to audiences of all ages, the Lookingglass Theatre Company’s production of “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” offers an earnest reminder of resilience and the unwavering bravery required to face both life and death. 

Based on the Hans Christian Andersen tale of the same name, the nearly wordless production, which ran from Nov. 13 to Jan. 8, follows a one-legged tin soldier through floods, fire and the streets of Denmark as he journeys back to the arms of his beloved ballerina. 

Described by creator, director and Communication Prof. Mary Zimmerman (Communication ‘82, Communication M.A. ‘85, Communication Doctorate ‘94) as a “miniature epic,” the tin soldier — played by Lookingglass veteran Adeoye — treks on with steadfast determination, exemplifying the strength in claiming one’s destiny despite adversity or perceived limitations. 

“I think that all of us feel that there is something we are lacking, or that we are less than or we aren’t as good as, or that we somehow don’t quite cut it,” Zimmerman said. “Almost every human being feels that way and relates to the soldier.”

Even in death, however, the tin soldier holds his head high in a final pas de deux, encouraging his frightened love to do the same. The show portrays the courage and integrity it takes to leave Earth with grace, showing that “how you go” pertains not only to the going about of daily life but to final breaths as well.

House manager Gabriella Ashlin said Zimmerman’s “Tin Soldier” is remarkable in the sheer breadth of emotions evoked through various art forms, acrobatics and physicality. From tragic loss to everlasting love, audiences leave having garnered more than just holiday cheer but the wisdom of a rich theatrical tale. 

“For some people, this is their first exposure to Lookingglass,” Ashlin said. “I think they come out of the show just loving theatre even more.” 

As a part of Lookingglass’s commitment to accessibility, Zimmerman wanted to create a show easily understood by all, regardless of language abilities. Inspired by old-fashioned pantomime and traditional storytelling, the show incorporates music, movement and visual art in place of the traditional oral narration. Characters’ thoughts are instead “voiced” by dramatic expression and an on-stage four-instrument orchestra.

Adeoye’s military hero addresses every problem with noble calmness and a small smile; it is easy to root for him and mourn his death in the end. The audience falls for him not soon after he notices the similarities between his one-legged stature and the passé of the ballerina, played by actress Kasey Foster, with a raised eyebrow and love-struck grin. 

The early era of incubation of Tin Soldier began with Zimmmerman’s hand-drawn sketches, which depicted puppetry plans, soldier-eating fish and basic outlines of ensemble characters. 

“I have a series of extremely rudimentary, not finely executed, little sketches of things,” Zimmerman said. “I’ve always been really involved in all aspects of design.”

The rehearsal process was a collaboration between Zimmerman and her close-knit group of artists and fellow Northwestern graduates. Rather than writing a full script in advance, Zimmerman approached the show in a piecemeal fashion, bringing in a few pages at a time to workshop with other players. 

Aside from Adeoye, each member of the cast plays multiple characters, making a much larger world out of five people. Actor Anthony Irons doubles as the evil Goblin in the form of a jack-in-the-box — complete with a springy suit with fake legs — and aloof patriarch. John Gregorio fills in a handful of supporting roles, from a passport-demanding rat to a snot-nosed boy. 

Christopher Donahue’s performance as the uptight nursemaid is no doubt the most memorable. The dutiful servant draws laughs through her relentless feather dusting and refusal of the local fisherman’s romantic advances. She is the one who discovers a melded heart in the oven drawer in the final scene, a symbol of everlasting love made from melted remnants of the tin soldier and ballerina after they are tossed in the flames. 

Patrons Jill Liebhaber, Clare Britt and Matthew Braun were enamored by the full-bodied atmosphere the lighting and sound effects created. A warm glow indicating dawn and murky shadows illuminating underground sewers evoked a vast surrounding in the confines of the small theater. 

Braun said the intimate setup and handmade special effects set “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” apart from other widely recognized holiday productions like “The Nutcracker.” 

“They don’t shy away from the imaginative qualities of make-believe theatre,” Braun said. “You see the actual actors using the puppets, and they invite you to participate with your imagination.”

Integrity rings true throughout the performance, even as the world (and flames) close in on the titular character. The word “missing” covering the side of the soldier’s left leg says nothing of the ample tenacity apparent in the rest of his body. 

“The Steadfast Tin Soldier” delivers a poignant message of persistence wrapped in an inviting world of whimsical fantasy, a lesson worth hearing no matter the season. 

Though unlikely to return to Lookingglass next winter, Zimmerman hopes audiences keep the sense of bravery her metal hero exemplifies with them. 

“It is sort of ironic given that he only has one foot, but ‘steadfast’ is putting one foot in front of the other and just stepping your way through life,” Zimmerman said. “You just have to take this little life of yours and walk it out.” 

Email: [email protected] 

Twitter: @NixieStrazza

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