The Hunchback Variations: A Chamber Opera
Music by Mark Messing
Libretto by Mickle Maher
The Hunchback Variations is based on a simple although completely unexpected premise: put Beethoven and Quasimodo in a room together and wait to see what happens. Just as a composer’s study in variations works to transform a single theme or melody, so too does the dramatization of this odd couple’s interactions. The same panel discussion occurs eleven times, each with a slightly different tone and often hilarious outcome.
Beethoven and Quasimodo have united in the attempt to discover what Anton Chekhov had in mind with his infamously ridiculous stage direction in The Cherry Orchard: “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.” The absurdity of their search is instantly apparent, regardless of the fact that Quasimodo may or may not have been real, and both characters died nearly a century before The Cherry Orchard’s premiere. Nevertheless, they are together now, offering a panel discussion about their artistic process, or lack of one as it turns out.
The comedy lives in the pairing of the two disparate characters. Beethoven (George Andrew Wolff) is prim in his tailored suit, egotistical and ill equipped for the task at hand (he is, you may remember, deaf). Quasimodo (Larry Adams) is filthy, lives in a shack in the middle of a swamp and doesn’t attempt to hide his frustration with Beethoven. Beethoven doesn’t bring much to the table, while Quasimodo litters his space with every noise-making device imaginable. The absurdist comedy is buoyantly entertaining, but the play is simultaneously grounded in thought-provoking musings on the nature of sound, the existence of fate, and art’s survival through the passage of time, to name a few.
Both actors are adept at comedic timing and give their respective characters specific quirks that add life to a nearly bare stage. Each also boasts a strong operatic voice, especially Mr. Adams’s resonant bass. The score, however, is the most note-worthy dimension of the variations. The simple cello and piano pairing effortlessly floats classical melodies much like those of Beethoven, but also creates a wider array of sounds than seems possible. The whines, groans, and eerily erratic buzzing are perhaps getting closer to Chekhov’s elusive direction.
The Hunchback Variations is unique, clever, and entertaining in its unabashed weirdness. Its only fault is that the variations are not varied quite enough to keep the audience engaged throughout. While some scenes are outrageously funny and others filled with affecting reflections, some are simply too repetitious. But even with this struggle, Variationsis refreshing in its peculiarity. Those with an interest in chamber opera or absurd comedy will find a gem in this eccentric production.