In The Cherry Orchard, Anton Chekhov wrote: "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."
That one sentence-one of the most controversial stage directions in western theater-has baffled sound designers for over a century. Chicago's Theater Oobleck has decided to confront the mystery in its own "Picasso at the Lapin Agile" fashion with The Hunchback Variations, now at 59E59 Theaters.
Oobleck co-founder Mickle Maher has developed an absurdist conceit in "The Hunchback Variations." Two of the most famous deaf artists in history, Ludwig van Beethoven and the fictional bell ringer of Notre Dame, Quasimodo, are paired in a doomed attempt to create Chekhov's famous sound effect, a sound effect that Konstantin Stanislavsky apparently couldn't figure out.
(Some scholars have suggested it represents in sound the unspoken heartaches of his characters.)
The result is, literally, a panel discussion set to composer Mark Messing's chamber music. Beethoven and Quasimodo recount their fairly predictable failure, while Messing's music highlights the tragic, complex and often- humorous layers of Maher's characters. The repetitive nature of the piece exploits the humor further. For me, The Hunchback Variations would be what would happen if the Upright Citizens Brigade had a baby with Gertrude Stein.
Is that even possible? Who cares?
I've actually read reviewers who postulated refashioning this piece into a spoken play. They felt non-continuous music might be more effective. I feel that, taking the opera out of it, would take the fun and definitely some of the absurdity out of the piece. Why do that?
Larry Adams as Quasimodo and George Andrew Wolff as Beethoven were great. In an age where I am barraged by rock operas, it's nice to hear such beautiful legitimate theatrical voices. Adams, especially, ranges from a rich deep baritone to a soaring falsetto. He's also dang funny. His periodic attempts to take one last stab at finding the mysterious sound are hilarious and moving. My favorite attempt was with the squeak toy.
I also enjoyed Wolff, who specifically was directed against type. Wolff's Beethoven is a chirpy, nattily dressed fellow in a blue blazer and designer glasses. He was the perfect foil to Adams. I also enjoyed the choice to make his lack of commitment to the project far more detrimental than his deafness.
How many actors have we worked with where that was the case?
As usual, Chicago leads the way with some of the most innovative original theatre in the United States today. The Hunchback Variations is an exploration of the artistic process and the tragic humor that often befalls an artist. I'm glad it made its way to New York.
I was thoroughly satisfied with The Hunchback Variations. Let me tell you though. The piece will get you thinking. Is Quasimodo's disappointment in not finding Chekhov's mysterious sound, Maher inadvertent discovery of it?
The Hunchback Variations: A Chamber Opera runs now through July 1st. For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or check out www.59E59.org.