How Beethoven Fights a Hunchback
“The Hunchback Variations” creates absurdity without a director
Sitting at a simple black table, Beethoven drinks his water with precision, pausing for a moment before he puts his glass on the table. Next to him, covering his hump with a blue sweatshirt, Quasimodo carefully plays a horn, blowing strangled notes with the purpose of a soldier playing taps.
And yes, these characters are ludicrous, but because they’re so composed, they have nobility.
That’s one of the bittersweet jokes in The Hunchback Variations, now at 59E59. On one hand, the show is an elegant chamber opera, with a pianist and cellist accompanying Beethoven and Quasimodo as they sing about the hopes and failures that define their life together.
On the other hand… that’s just absurd. According to Mickle Maher’s libretto, which is based on his play, the real composer and the fictional hunchback were asked to create the famous “snapping string” sound effect in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. They failed, and now they’re hosting a panel discussion to explain why.
Or rather, they’re hosting eleven panel discussions. Each one of these “variations” is a short scene that explores another facet of their cantankerous collaboration.
At every moment, then, we’re tossed between legitimate feelings and ludicrous situations. Between a stirring moment in Mark Messing’s score and a larky bit where Quasimodo fumes because Beethoven wants the sound effect to be created by the flipping pages of Emily Dickinson’s poems.
It takes enormous care to balance these wildly different tones, to make this fantasy panel discussion seem honest and funny at the same time. Surprisingly, though, The Hunchback Variations doesn’t have a director. It was created in Chicago by Theatre Oobleck, a company that lets actors make most of the decisions about a production. As the performers work, other company members watch rehearsals and give notes. “But you can either take the note or not take the note,” says Larry Adams, who plays Quasimodo. “In the end, they feel the final say is with the actor.”
For Adams and his costar George Andrew Wolff, who plays Beethoven, this approach has created a unique sense of ownership. For instance, the show opens with Quasimodo walking out in silence and slowly filling the table with the various objects he’ll use to make sound effects. As each ludicrous thing lands gently in place, we instantly grasp the funny-serious tone.
“That was my directorial choice,” Adams says. “I said, ‘This is how I think we should begin the show.’ That was really part of the enjoyment we had in putting this together. And if something doesn’t work, we’re open to that. If we get a note—if George gives me a note, or the guys in the band—we’re open to that.”
Because the actors are also “directors,” they feel free to adjust the production as they go, sometimes night by night. Wolff says, “There are moments, depending on the audience, that we take big liberties. There are moments [in variation 11] that I sing full out, and there are [nights] I sing it in almost a whisper, and both musicians are right there with us, however it goes. There are even moments that we’ll start singing our duet things, and it takes on a different sonorous quality, and I think, ‘Oh, I’m gonna match that. That’s interesting.’ And you can’t do that in a lot of musicals. A lot of musicals don’t have room for that.”
That statement hints at another contradiction in the show. The performances and the score are both thoughtfully constructed, but at the same time, things change every night. And the story itself feels flexible, impossible to literally understand. “The piece is truly absurdist,” Wolff says. “We expect the audience to make certain exceptions for us. I tell them, ‘I’m old, I’m deaf,’ but I’m constantly hearing things throughout the room.”
The actors embrace this ambiguity. “We do not know, nor has it been determined, whether these [variations] were in eleven different cities or if one of them was the one that ‘actually happened,’” Wolff says. “We don’t know, and we don’t want to know.”
Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor