Elusive sound is more than mere noise in ‘Hunchback’

Offbeat content is the norm for Chicago playwright Mickle Maher – but even by his standards, "The Hunchback Variations" is seriously crazed.

The fifth Maher play produced by Houston's Catastrophic Theatre, "The Hunchback Variations" takes the form of a panel discussion on theatrical sound effects. The participants are Quasimodo, fictional protagonist of Victor Hugo's "Notre Dame de Paris," and famed composer Ludwig van Beethoven. They report on their failed efforts to create the mysterious impossible sound required in Anton Chekhov's classic "The Cherry Orchard" – described as "a distant sound heard coming out of the sky, as of a string snapping, then slowly dying away."

The 45-minute play's format is indeed theme-and-variations. The duo play their brief scene, then repeat it a dozen or so times, with increasingly divergent content. Quasimodo re-creates the various sound effects he tried, from deflating balloon to toy piano – each, in turn, rejected by Beethoven: "That is not the sound." The built-in repetition may be a liability at times, but as with any running joke, also makes certain things funnier as they recur.

Beethoven offers only one suggestion, riffling with his thumb through the pages of Emily Dickinson's complete poems. Quasimodo rejects that one.

As they lament their failure, Quasimodo voices various resentments. For instance, why did they have to perform their experiments in Quasimodo's muddy hut in the marshes, instead of Beethoven's swank apartment in the city?

Quasimodo and Beethoven speak with awareness that they are out of sync with time and reality – for instance, collaborating on an artistic challenge posed by a play premiered in 1904, long after Beethoven's actual life and Quasimodo's fictitious one. Compounding the peculiarity, Quasimodo wears full costume, prosthetics and makeup, while Beethoven, attired contemporary casual, looks like somebody two cubicles down at your office.

Maher is using one particular artistic challenge, that enigmatic Chekhovian sound cue, to explore the futility of all artistic endeavor – perhaps, even any endeavor. Despite the preposterousness of the construct, Quasimodo appears dead serious throughout, and even the initially glib Beethoven evinces increasing perplexity and frustration. Add the periodic bursts of poetic language and "The Hunchback Variations" somehow acquires rueful resonance, even amid the resolute absurdity of it all.

So is this deadpan existentialist vaudeville a sardonic put-on or, beneath its calculated oddity, a genuine philosophical conundrum?

Maher leaves it to each individual to decide.

The strange enterprise is deftly realized by Greg Dean as Quasimodo and Jeff Miller as Beethoven.

Dean, who also supplies the entirely natural and understated direction, enacts Quasi with a sense of the great effort required to speak each word and make each movement. When he arrives at the start, gradually unpacking equipment from several valises, Dean goes through his paces with the unflappable industriousness that marked the moves of great silent-screen clowns such as Buster Keaton. That focus and dignity allow him to be both sad and absurdly funny, sometimes simultaneously. For my money, Dean's Quasimodo is right up there with the screen portrayals by Lon Chaney and Charles Laughton.

Miller's contemporary Beethoven proves the perfect foil – distant, a bit condescending, arbitrarily authoritative. With his subtle delivery and wry expressions, he's both genial and insincere. Ever more peeved and puzzled, he too, conveys the ultimate seriousness of ineffectuality and failed enterprise.

Adventurous theatergoers who have enjoyed Catastrophic's stagings of Maher's plays likely will get a kick out of this determinedly loopy outing. Perhaps even more than "The Strangerer" and "Spirits to Enforce," this one is Maher to the nth degree.