Sunday, February 5, 2012

See This: The Hunchback Variations Opera

Near the end of Act Two of Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, the characters sit 'thoughtfully' in a quiet field, surrounded by poplars and an orchard and some gravestones. Here Chekhov inserts an enigmatic stage direction: Suddenly a distant sound is heard as if from the sky, the sound of a breaking string, which dies away sadly. Later, at the very end of the play, Checkov the strange sound returns: The distant sound is heard, as if from the sky, of a breaking string, dying away sadly. This difficult cue has long perplexed stage directors, who have struggled to create such a perplexing effect. So now imagine that famed composer Ludwig van Beethoven and Quasimodo, the fictional protagonist of Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre-Dame collaborated in an effort to produce this impossible sound ... and failed miserably. And that they are now holding a series of panel discussions attempting to explain their failure. This is the premise of The Hunchback Variations, a play written by Mickle Maher and staged by Theater Oobleck in 2001.

The play was a success for the small Chicago theatre company, and was re-staged a couple times over the last decade. A few years ago, while mowing the lawn, Maher got the idea to turn the production into an opera. He enlisted Mark Messing, cofounder of the band Mucca Pazza, to help compose some music, and thus was born The Hunchback Variations Opera, currently playing at the Victory Gardens Biograph Theatre on Lincoln Ave.

I first discovered the wonderful Theatre Oobleck in 2009, when they re-staged another Mickle Maher play, An Apology for the Course & Outcome of Certain Events Delivered by Doctor John Faustus on This His Final Evening, at the Chopin Theatre. It was one of my favorite plays of that year. Then last year I was blown away again by Maher's There Is a Happiness That Morning Is, staged at the DCA Theatre downtown. So when I heard about this one, as weird and potentially disastrous as it sounded, I put my faith in Mahler and Theatre Oobleck, and let me just say, I adored this production just as much as the other two. Surreal, hilarious, inspiring, thought-provoking, wonderful. Just go see it.

The Hunchback Variations Opera plays Wednesdays through Sundays until February 19 at The Victory Gardens Theatre on Lincoln, just west of Halsted, near the Fullerton Red Line stop. Tickets are $20, though you also have the option to pay $10, or nothing if you're broke. Or a jerk.

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