Cultural Capitol welcomes our guest columnist Keith Meatto! Check out is other work at Frontier Psychiatrist.
Beethoven and Quasimodo team up to write a musical interpretation of a cryptic stage direction in Anton Chekhov’s play The Cherry Orchard, but both men are deaf and near death, Beethoven is senile, and the project ends in failure. Such is the setup of The Hunchback Variations, based on Mickle Maher’s play with music by Mark Messing, a “chamber opera” that had a successful run in Chicago and opened June 1 at 59E59 Theaters in New York.
With its minimal cast, set, and movement, the focus of The Hunchback Variations is the actors’ singing. Beethoven (George Andrew Wolff) has a voice as crisp and sassy as his royal blue suit (no tie, no wig); his voice fits his character’s breezy arrogance and game show host persona. Quasimodo’s (Larry Adams) funereal tones underscore the sadness of his disfigured body and the gloominess of his worldview. As the two spar in song a central question emerges: Can we learn from our failures?
The brief show (80 minutes) consists of variations on a theme. Each of the 11 scenes has the same setup: a satirical “panel discussion” where Beethoven and Quasimodo, whom I thought of as Lud and Hunchie, discuss the failure of their collaboration. Since the actors rarely leave their seats at the table stage right, my attention often wandered to stage left, where pianist Christopher Sargent and cellist Paul Ghica modulated the mood from somber to silly and everywhere in between.
In the playful spirit of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, The Hunchback Variations gets much of its humor from the impossible interplay between a historical figure and a fictional character, as well as from the fact that Beethoven (1770-1827) died before the publication of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831) and the Moscow premiere of The Cherry Orchard (1904).
Beyond the underlying anachronism, the show offers little history and sticks to the basics of characterization: Beethoven writes music and has a plush city apartment; Quasimodo rings bells and has a dirty hut in the marsh. The characters are less three-dimensional figures than archetypes representing extremes of the human condition: grandiosity and self-loathing, narcissism and depression, faith and doubt.
If the show has a soft spot, it’s the relative lack of suspense or stakes. Because the dramatic action all happens before the first scene, the dialogue is reflective, not urgent. The characters ask what did we do? rather than what should we do? It’s less like a court case, sports game, or election than an interview with the losing lawyer, coach, or politician. Or maybe it’s like skimming status updates about your friends’ vacations, concerts, meals, or kids: enjoyable, but only vicariously.
While The Hunchback Variations aims at theater and literary types—Lud and Hunchie raise more universal questions. How do we measure success, fulfillment, and happiness? How do we discover and accept our limitations? What legacy will we leave when we die? These questions matter whether you’re a musical genius, deformed wretch, or somewhere in between.
THE HUNCHBACK VARIATIONS through Sunday, July 1.
Tuesday – Thursday at 7:15 PM; Friday at 8:15 PM; Saturday at 2:15 PM and 8:15 PM; and Sunday at 3:15 PM.
Performances are at 59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison Avenues). Tickets are $35 ($24.50 for 59E59 Members).
Purchase tickets at Ticket Central (212) 279-4200 or http://www.59e59.org.