Frontier Psychiatrist

Impossible Sound: A Review of The Hunchback Variations

Posted on: June 12, 2012

Beethoven and Quasimodo in “The Hunchback Variations”

Mixing historical and fictional characters certainly has comic possibilities, whether it’s a rap battle video between Napoleon Bonaparte and Napoleon Dynamite, or a novel that imagines Abraham Lincoln as a vampire hunter. It also has dramatic potential, as in a new “chamber opera” in which Ludwig Van Beethoven and the hunchback of Notre Dame join forces to write a musical interpretation of a cryptic stage direction in Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. As the two characters spar in a series of songs, a question emerges: are there emotions that words or sounds cannot express? The question matters not only to composers, playwrights, and bell-ringers but also to anyone who’s ever opened his or her mouth to speak.

The Hunchback Variations, based on Mickle Maher’s play with music by Mark Messing, just closed a run in Chicago and is now playing for one month at New York’s 59E59 Theaters.  The brisk show (80 minutes) consists of variations on a theme. Each of the 11 scenes has the same setup: Beethoven and Quasimodo, whom I thought of as Lud and Hunchie, host a satirical panel discussion with the verbose title: “Sound, Mysterious Sound, Impossible Sound, Creating the Impossible, Mysterious Sound and the Effect of Love and Friendship of Rehearsing the Creation of the Impossible and Mysterious Sound.” Since Lud and Hunchie rarely leave their seats at the table stage right, my attention often wandered to stage left, where pianist Christopher Sargent and cellist Paul Ghica modulated the mood from somber to silly and everywhere in between.

The Hunchback Variations: Beethoven, Quasimodo, and two-man band

With its minimal cast, set, and movement, the focus of The Hunchback Variations is the actors’ voices. As Beethoven, George Andrew Wolff has a voice that establishes his character’s breezy arrogance and game show host glibness, a voice as crisp and sassy as his royal blue suit (no tie, no wig). Larry Adams’ funereal tones underscore the grotesqueness of the hunchback’s face and body, as well as the gloominess of his worldview (no faith, no hope).

For the historically astute, The Hunchback Variations is predicated on a inside joke: Beethoven died in 1827, four years before Victor Hugo published The Hunchback of Notre Dame and decades before Stanislavski directed the Moscow premiere of The Cherry Orchard in 1904. Beyond the anachronism, the show offers little history and sticks to the basics of characterization: Beethoven writes music and has a plush city apartment; Quasimodo rings bells and has a dirty hut in the marsh. The characters are less three-dimensional figures than archetypes representing extremes of the human condition: grandiosity and depression, narcissism and self-loathing.

One of the show’s many refrains is Chekhov’s original stage direction from The Cherry Orchard: “Suddenly, a distant sound is hear, coming as if out of the sky, snapping, slowly and sadly dying away.” Ironically, a recurrent stage direction in The Hunchback Variations libretto –“Quasimodo makes a sound”—is even more vague. The description of the music as “a melancholy, repetitive soundtrack” is more specific, but hardly a symphonic score.

If the show has a soft spot, it’s the relative lack of suspense or stakes. Because the dramatic action all happens before the first scene, the dialogue is reflective, not urgent. The characters ask what did we do? rather than what should we do? It’s less like a court case, sports game, or election than an interview with the losing lawyer, coach, or politician. Or maybe it’s like skimming status updates about your friends’ vacations, concerts, meals, or kids: enjoyable, but only vicariously.

While The Hunchback Variations aims at theater and literary types—Lud and Hunchie raise more universal questions. How do we measure success, fulfillment, and happiness? How do we discover and accept our limitations? Can we learn from our failures? What legacy will we leave when we die? These questions matter whether you’re a musical genius, deformed wretch, or somewhere in between.

Keith Meatto is editor in chief of Frontier Psychiatrist. He recently reviewed The Secret of Evil, Roberto Bolano’s posthumous short story collection and The Royalty’s debut album, LoversThe Hunchback Variations runs through July 1 at 59E59 Theaters. This review is cross-posted from Cultural Capitol.

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