review: the hunchback variations

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The Hunchback Variations: A Chamber Opera

Music by Mark Messing
Libretto by Mickle Maher (from his own play)
Featuring Larry Adams, George Andrew Wolff, Paul Ghica (cello), Christopher Sargent (piano)
Theater Oobleck at 59E59, 59 East 59th Street
June 10, 2012 — July 1, 2012
production web site
Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee

June 9, 2012

(L-R) George Andrew Wolff, Larry Adams. Image by Carol Rosegg.

I have a huge capacity for quirky music and quirky theatre. I spend a lot of my time as a dramaturg and critic parsing the nuances of language and, yes, even pondering the possible intentions expressed in stage directions. I have never worked on a production of The Cherry Orchard but I have seen quite a few productions in Chicago, New York and other locales.  And in all those exposures I had not  considered Anton Chekhov‘s stage direction at the end of Act II that inspires the current production. “Suddenly a distant sound is heard, coming as if out of the sky, like the sound of a string snapping, slowly and sadly dying away.”  I had not pondered these words until Chicago’s Theatre Oobleck visited New York City at 59E59 Theatres, and I was able to watch Beethoven in a 20th-century suit paired with Quasimodo and his familiar hunchback and bulbous deformed face sip water, play with various toys, react to a pianist and cellist near by, and attempt to crack the mystery in Chekhov’s imagery. Deft historical characters ponder a dead playwright’s intentions in song. This is a quirky and thoughtful and very funny delight.

Playwright and librettist Mickle Maher has given us a version of SNL’s “Delicious Dish” sketch (two women on an NPR show discuss middle American cooking — hot dish and corn muffins — and the source of the now-famous “Schweddy Balls” episode) as a means to conduct a philosophical parsing of a sonic mystery. Will we join our characters in search of a single tone, a Russian literary Wilhelm Scream? No, our reality is more nuanced and more rambling than a straightforward hunt-and-peck through tunes and tone. In Maher’s musing on Chekhov’s non-directive directions, our two NPR hosts conduct serial monologues, not really interacting with one another, on the possible meanings of the play, of life, to tones, and related thoughts.  Beethoven (George Andrew Wolff), admittedly deaf, takes a place at the table, considers possible sounds proposed by “half deaf” Quasimodo (Larry Adams) — a child’s xylophone ping, a strumming of a piano’s strings (all very Keith Jarrett), tapping on drums, clapping various blocks or objects together.  Between each “variation” the words the characters sing vary slightly, certainly phrases repeat, and the ridiculous situation sinks in even further.  Beethoven delivers a repeated, deliciously timed edict after each proposed effect: “That is not the sound.” And we return for more.

In 75 intermissionless minutes we experience quite delectable piano and cello and toy and object banging and plucking, some surprising cross-cultural references (see Quasimodo read from Emily Dickinson, for example).  And a constant source of entertainment.

© Martha Wade Steketee (June 11, 2012)

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