The Hunchback Variations
nytheatre.com review by Ed Malin
June 5, 2012
Chicago’s Theater Oobleck brings us The Hunchback Variations, a hilarious evening with some rather serious people: Ludwig van Beethoven and Quasimodo, the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Quasimodo (Larry Adams) enters with two suitcases full of assorted noisemakers, and is joined by Beethoven (George Andrew Wolff) at a table with microphones and a pitcher of water. A pianist (Christopher Sargent) and cellist (Paul Ghica) play wonderful and diverse music in the background as the two panelists speak (or sing) about their experiences working together to create a special sound effect for Chekhov’s play The Cherry Orchard. Beethoven tolerates Quasimodo's attempts to create the sound effect. As the title suggests, the evening is split into eleven Variations, all musically different, all separate attempts to get to the truth of what happened. It is profound.
Mickle Maher adapted his play into a chamber opera with the help of composer Mark Messing. You will hear a scene sung to music that is extreme Beethoven, followed by another that sounds a lot like John Cage, with some modern jazz thrown in, and a unique, romantic piece where the cello is played with a mallet. It is quite remarkable that the intense script goes so well with all of these musical styles, and that the ensemble works without a director. The singing is quite strong. I must say, the text on its own blew me away.
Of course, even if the medieval Quasimodo had been a real person, he and Beethoven could never have worked together on a Chekhov play nor could they have found inspiration from the works of Emily Dickinson. But despite the humorous and absurd juxtaposition, there are some poignant musings on the purpose of failure. Beethoven had gone deaf by the time he composed his last works. Chekhov's final play The Cherry Orchard, which he wrote while dying of tuberculosis, calls for a fantastical sound effect which even the original director, Stanislavsky, could not create to Chekhov's satisfaction. Is this story really about the fine line between creativity and dementia? Or is it beautiful to see how many ways ordinary people can try to do something and still fail? Quasimodo is a bit depressed, but he does live in a swamp hut and uses a large bell (borrowed from Notre Dame) as a table; it is not a good place to put a drink down.