Sunday, April 24, 2005

The Hunchback Variations @ Links Hall

Theater Oobleck presented a performance of Mickle Maher’s, “The Hunchback Variations” for the last couple weekends at Links Hall in Chicago, featuring Jeffery Bivens as Ludwig Van Beethoven and Colm O’Reily as Quasimodo.

This script is hilarious and the performance is simple and clear. The premise is a supposed panel discussion between Beethoven and Quasimodo on the topics relating to an apparently failed collaboration to create the "impossible sound" described in the stage directions of the Chekhov play, “The Cherry Orchard”. “The Hunchback Variations” is structured in short, ten-minute or so, repeated variations…Beethoven repeatedly introduces the panel and then some kind of discussion about the collaboration takes place, the reasons and details of the failure are explored (and bemoaned by Quasimodo), and a kind of diligent chipping away at the impossible is presented.

The set is a long table, covered with a white cloth, with two mics and a pitcher of water. An abstract chiming soundtrack plays behind the performance, at times haunting the actors with a reminder of the sounds they (both being deaf) can no longer hear, of the sound their collaboration failed to evoke, and perhaps, for Quasimodo, the bells of Notre Dam left behind. Both characters comically acknowledge both the sounds and the audience at times with looks of pain, bewilderment, stoicism and indignation.

The romantic Quasimodo, long suffering, now living in a hut in a bog, was a constant bell tone throughout the play for me. He repeatedly made me laugh by lashing out at Beethoven or the audience from some new low of comic despicableness. He is costumed with a hump, ragged clothing and a mask. He opens the play by coming down the aisle and going to the table. He proceeds to remove a number of objects (sticks, jars, a pink toy guitar, etc) from a bag and place them on his side of the table. Colm performs this with excellent focus and interest and very confidently draws the attention of the audience to the stage and establishes a tone for the show.

Once Quasimodo finishes setting up, Beethoven enters briskly carrying a book. He is middle-aged, dressed in casual, contemporary dress and wearing glasses. Upon seeing the man enter from the audience’s right, I thought that I was about to listen to an NPR announcer give a talk. Beethoven takes the lead and opens the panel during most of the variations. In contrast to the Quasimodo masquerade, the Beethoven character lacks any theatrical or historical markers and is established simply by his repeated self-introductions. We are told that this is Beethoven, by Beethoven, and within the absurdity of the play, it is easy enough to accept.

I found Jeffery’s Beethoven less internally present than Colm’s Quasimodo though. Jeffery speaks very clearly and well and even while seated behind the table his body is activated and expressive; unfortunately I also found him fidgety at times. His hands where a big aspect of his performance to me and I began to think about how it seemed wrong to me that this was supposedly Beethoven, a master pianist, an athlete of the hands, and that, as he sat before us, his hands were flailing about the table and his person. It seemed that here was a character that should have been in his physical comfort zone at the edge of a table, a piano-like horizontal expanse, but was generally unsettled and fidgety. I enjoyed his calmer moments though and the more focused business he found fiddling with the microphone or the book.

I noticed that Jeffery wasn’t the person depicted in the program and later I learned that they had to bring him in to play Beethoven for these last two shows. I think the author Mickle Maher was the original actor, so perhaps Jeffery was just filling in on the spur of the moment.

Jeffery’s performance did leave me with a sense that this Beethoven is not used to failure and is, in fact, unable to accept or understand the event of failure. In that way his Beethoven seems almost innocent or naïve. He presents a good face as a panelist, routinely framing their predicament in an excusatory but poetic language only to be comically rebuked by Quasimodo’s romantic wallowing and stubbornness. Together they seemed like two aspects of the artistic temperament, the brilliant ego, and some trudging, self-doubting creature. Both reach for a kind of perfection, and are unwilling to give up romantic, if doomed, pursuits of impossible things. Both are self-involved, and achieve little…to the point of comedy.

This panel talk is initially presented in the play as a reconsideration of their failure but we quickly learn that their failure to find this “impossible sound” was never really accepted by either character. Beethoven, in his perfectionism, indulges his daydreams and never really contributes anything useful to the collaboration, avoiding failure by not trying, and Quasimodo is left with the work and the suffering of engaging in this doomed process. A repeated gag is when Quasimodo gathers together a few of the objects before him and triggers some pathetic little sound, and then Beethoven, called from some reverie, responds with a “No, that is not it.”

I suppose I don’t really care if they find the sound or not, their relationship and the proposed situation is amusingly described and basically satisfactory for me in itself. I struggle to find much more in this play than the results of an exercise that brings these figures together and self-reflexively considers the creative process. I suppose I feel like there is something in there about taking responsibility for ourselves, something about how we create romantic ideals and that those dreams can be more satisfying in themselves than other things, and something about the mystery of sound. I cannot coherently articulate what is being said about those things though, so I am left with the feeling that this piece is enjoyable but not so important.

Maybe I should see it again, I suggest anyone who has the chance to go. If I went back again, I imagine my questions for the play would be: What is really at stake here? What are the jokes hiding? Why am I keyed into a concern about the willingness and unwillingness to take responsibility in this play? And, why is Theater Oobleck presenting this play of responsibility and failure to me now, at this time?

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