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The Hunchback Variations

This funny, moving, and sometimes frustrating work cleverly explores one of Anton Chekhov's great stage directions.

George Andrew Wolff and Larry Adams
in The Hunchback Variations
(© Carol Rosegg)
Punctuating a scene 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 greatest stage directions in western theater -- has baffled sound designers for over a century. So Chicago's Theater Oobleck has decided to confront the mystery in its own characteristically audacious fashion, with The Hunchback Variations, now at 59E59 Theaters.

In this funny, moving, but frustrating work, Oobleck co-founder Mickle Maher has developed an absurdist conceit: to pair two of the most famous deaf artists in history, Ludwig van Beethoven and the fictional bell ringer of Notre Dame, Quasimodo, in a comically doomed attempt to create Chekov's famous sound effect, which some scholars have suggested represents in sound the unspoken heartaches of his characters.

The result is, literally, a panel discussion set to composer Mark Messing's chamber music in which Beethoven and Quasimodo recount their fairly predictable failure. And while Messing's music brings out the beautiful, haunting layers of Maher's characters, its repetitive nature blunts the humor. It's possible that the piece as a spoken play with non-continuous music might be more effective (and indeed, this musical version is based on Maher's earlier play of the same name).

Both of the performers, Larry Adams as Quasimodo and George Andrew Wolff as Beethoven, would do well in either scenario. Adams, especially, has a fine voice that ranges from gravelly growls to soaring falsetto, but he's also an engaging actor. His periodic attempts to take one last stab at finding the mysterious sound -- with instruments ranging from squealing walkie-talkies to a squeezy clown-head toy -- are both hilarious and deeply moving.

Unlike Adams, Wolff is cast completely against type. Instead of the brooding, bipolar giant of Western music, Wolff's Beethoven is a chirpy, nattily dressed fellow in a blue blazer and designer glasses, whose lack of commitment to the project is far more detrimental than his deafness.

In many ways, the work is a study of the artistic process, and the role that memory and loss can play in its triumphs and heartbreaks. Athough you might come away from the performance wishing that more of the humor had been mined, you also might wonder if, somewhere in Quasimodo's stubborn obsessions, Maher has somehow inadvertently discovered that mysterious sound.