The Hunchback Variations – Review
Quasimodo and Ludwig van Beethoven walk into a bar and discuss Chekhov. Well kind of. Actually they walk into a panel discussion (featuring only them) to report on their collaborative attempts to identify and replicate the elusive and nebulous sound cue described at the end of Anton Chekov’s, The Cherry Orchard. The sound Chekov describes as, “Coming as if out of the sky, like the sound of a string snapping, slowly and sadly dying away.” Quasimodo and Beethoven have failed miserably in their efforts as they will tell you. And oh, yes … they’re both deaf.
If this sounds like the set up to some absurd egg-headed joke meant to tickle the brains of Mensa members you’d be half right. But thanks to playwright Mickle Maher’s terrifically funny for even non-geniuses script, whip cracking tight direction by Greg Dean and two outstandingly funny yet thought-provoking performances, this is a theatrical experience worthy of wide attention.
I’m calling Maher’s 40 minute long, The Hunchback Variations, an experience rather than a play or even a show because the very structure of it is as absurd as its subject. On a set featuring only a black skirted long table outfitted with two microphones, two glasses and a generous pitcher of water, Quasimodo (a superlatively physical Greg Dean) lumbers in. Huffing and puffing under the weight of his generous hump and other corporeal maladies, he drags in several briefcases to the panel table and unpacks what looks like to be a flea market array of items. A violin, mini piano, wine glass, balloons, nuts and bolts and of all things, whip cream are among the voluminous booty. Dean, face half obstructed by a bug-eyed horror of a mask calling to mind a bad acid trip viewing of Phantom of the Opera, grunts and groans through the rotten couple of teeth that protrude his mouth as he sets up his station and waits for his panel member.
In sharp contrast Beethoven (played brilliantly suave without one iota of Deutschland in him) takes to the stage propless, wigless and in modern business dress with cool confidence, stopping to nod and smile to the imaginary crowds gathered to hear him speak. “Good evening”, he says with the dulcet tones of every stereotypical NPR announcer you’ve seen spoofed. “And welcome to the panel discussion on impossible and mysterious sounds. But first, an opening statement from Quasimodo.”
They are lines that will be repeated over and over during the performance that organizes it’s self as mini sketches with blackouts in between like a looping, surreally funny odd dream that you can’t seem to wake from. Each sketch starts with Ludwig’s welcome, altered slightly just to make sure we’re all still paying attention, followed by a despondent opening statement from Quasimodo bemoaning the pair’s failure and utter futility of the endeavour in the first place. All the while, a gently trilling piano plays in the background as though urging the men forward.
Do they hear it? Do they hear each other? They are both deaf we’re told, but they seem to understand each other. And the myriad of sound effects Quasimodo makes with his bag of tricks to illustrate the dozens of attempts made to replicated the sound seems to register with them both. “That is not the sound,” assures Beethoven to the audience after each of Quasimodo’s attempts.
While the structure is minimal, Maher has much to say. Quasimodo is defeated by the experiment yet shows his willingness to try and try again even though he believes the whole thing to be doomed. Beethoven, we learn, has barely contributed to the work at all (has he even read The Cherry Orchard?), is only mildly put off by their inability to reach perfection and instead seems confident in the fact that his reputation is all his needs for success. Through this juxtaposition of attitudes as well is the class, health, economic and happiness divide that differentiates these two characters, Maher introduces some wonderfully meaty questions. Is attaining artistic perfection possible or even desirable? Is there even such a thing as perfection in art? Which is more valuable, the artist that can only do one thing but do it perfectly or the artist who toils and slogs at many talents? Does positively propel creativity or is it only in misery and toil that beauty is created? Is it better to make a lot of noise and not be perfect or to be silent and have no one know you failed?
Most importantly, Maher makes us laugh even as we ponder these important questions. Dean’s direction gives ample room for the characters to one up each other in dual straight man absurdity and doesn’t ever rush the punchline. The comedy includes highbrow notions such as Beethoven flipping the pages of an Emily Dickenson novel in an attempt to make the elusive sound even though she wasn’t yet born at the time of Chekov’s play. The humour also comes from less lofty notions such as the ongoing argument between the pair about how it was unfair to hold the experiments in Quasimodo’s odorous mud hut when Beethoven has a lovely swishy flat they could have used. It takes a confident director to breathe so much room for pause and reverberation into a script and Dean shows a masterful hand in the process.
Equally exquisite are the two performers. Dean’s Quasimodo is a lesson in less is more. Sure he’s a physical sight to behold on stage, but Dean never overplays it. Instead he finds subtle ways, like a constant slight tongue thrust or lightly worn English accent, to ensure we not only gawk at his character but listen intently as well.
With no costume, accent or any Beethoven-ism whatsoever to rely on, Jeff Miller delivers a terrifically controlled performance bathed in barely hidden smarm meant to charm and sooth all that listen. The perfect foil for Dean’s emotional Quasimodo, Miller keeps cool as an oily cucumber in his comedic willful refusal to admit defeat. As the sketches go on and on and Beethoven’s resolve begins to crack, Miller beautifully opens the door just enough for us to get a grand laugh at the maestro’s budding shame.
By the time the last welcome and blackout has occurred, we’re no further along in solving the Chekhov sound puzzle and Quasimodo and Beethoven certainly haven’t accomplished or discovered anything useful in their quest. But the gift of this production isn’t the definitive answer to the quandary or the journey of the characters towards the perfect sound, it’s the twang of thought we are left in consideration of what they failed at. And that to me, is the most important beautiful theatrical sound there is.
For the deep thinkers – Yes the premise is absurd, but don’t mistake comedy for fluffiness here. Maher poses big thinky questions that will leave you chatting wildly over your post show drinks. SEE IT
For those in need of amusement – I haven’t laughed this much at a show in an awfully long time. But take note, this isn’t necessarily an easy guffaw, snicker out loud, joke a minute type of comedy. It’s smart and sly and sneaks up on you in places. In other words, Dumb and Dumber it ain’t. If you’re good with cleverness and a lot of quirk with your humour, you’ll be rewarded. MAYBE SEE IT
For the occasional theater goer – This is far too experimental and unstructured and frankly too much work for most folks. But then you probably already knew that after the first line of the review. SKIP IT
For theater junkies – Yes. For every reason I can think of Yes. Direction, script, design, performances and for the chance to see something terribly funny, unique and risky that works. SEE IT