The set-up: What are we to make of Mickle Maher's The Hunchback Variations (2001)? This weird, absurdist little comedy holds the Catastrophic Theatre with a fascinating oddness and comes complete with Maher's distinctive strangeness and poetic flights of fancy (see The Strangerer, There Is a Happiness That Morning Is, Spirits to Enforce, The Pine - all crisply produced in previous Catastrophic productions). But the sketchiness of this ultimate sketch comedy holds it back. It's like a prelude to something that's missing. Where's the rest of it? The execution: Let's start at the beginning. A long table on a raised platform. A pitcher of water and two glasses. Two chairs and two microphones. Looks like an interview setting, or a panel discussion. What's odd is that one of the chairs is significantly lower, as is its mike. Who lumbers down the aisle but Quasimodo (Greg Dean), carrying three heavy suitcases. We know the immortal bell-ringer instantly for he looks a lot like Lon Chaney or Charles Laughton from their movies. Misshapen and grotesquely deformed, breathing heavily, he lugs the suitcases onto the stage and unpacks the contents. A toy piano, a baby violin, a small dinner bell, a jar of coins, silverware, a dog's squeaky toy, a bicycle horn, a can of Reddi-Wip, a file folder. He places each object neatly in front of him. His wayward tongue darts out between his hideous teeth, a frog never to be kissed. He's endearingly earnest and not at all happy to be here, eyeing us suspiciously with his one good eye.
As Quasimodo sets up his space, Beethoven (Jeff Miller) saunters in from the opposite side, all preppy professor, giving us a hearty wave hello. He's happy to be here, satisfied even. Unlike Quasimodo in his medieval getup, the great composer is dressed in contemporary mufti, and we'll find out soon enough who he is when he introduces himself, his discussion panel partner, and why they're here.
They are here to discuss sound, one very specific sound effect, or as Beethoven explains, "an impetuous sound, an impossibly sound." This would be Anton Chekhov's unusual 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." What is this sound? What does it mean? Channeling Monty Python at its best, Maher sets up his absurd premise with pinprick accuracy: two deaf guys talking about sound.
A series of blackout sketches, a set of variations, each skit begins exactly the same. Beethoven welcomes us with the premise at hand, then introduces Quasimodo who read his introductory remarks from 3X5 cards, then makes a noise using one of the props - he rattles the coin jar, squeezes the pet toy, or toots the New Year's Eve blowout. "That is not the sound," Beethoven patiently qualifies. With either exasperation or futility, Beethoven says goodnight to use, the lights black out, then immediately come back on, and the next variation begins.
Each has a slightly different mood and tone, either Quasimodo complains that their rehearsals would have gone better had they rehearsed in Beethoven's rich house rather than in his marshy hovel, or Beethoven expounds a bit on the difficulty of expressing the inexpressible. The mood is blackly comic, but not quite as hilarious as some in the opening night audience would have us believe. The laughs come from the silly juxtaposition of the whole affair: just watching Dean's dour messy hunchback make inappropriate noises next to Miller's prissy intellectual is funny in itself.
The play veers into more cosmic territory when Beethoven confesses that he hasn't even read The Cherry Orchard. His change is perceptible, as he takes off his glasses and cradles his head in his hands. His optimism from the opening variations swiftly turns sour. Quasimodo keeps the same pessimism he started with, "Our collaboration was doomed no matter what the external circumstances."
Maher weaves his little existential puzzle with swathes of precisely phrased dialogue that falls on the ear with delicacy and heartbreak. He's one of the few contemporary playwrights who can turn purple prose into an emperor's robe. His "deep thoughts" are deep and mean everything to his characters. They carry the weight of the world in them.
Dean and Miller are exceptionally good. Dean (director and scenic designer, also) has an easier time of it, since he gets fullness of makeup to assist his character's bleak world view -- what actor doesn't relish playing such a timeless iconic creature? He peeps at us, wrinkling an already wrinkled and skewed brow, and mechanically moves as if every turn of this body causes pain. He's gawky and awkward, and Dean shows off Quasimodo's self-consciousness. The first time he spits out, "I curse you all!" he gets a few titters from the audience for his overly melodramatic rush; the next time he curses us, there's a stabbed silence.
Dean has the showier role and he runs with it, but it's Miller who carries the heart of the play. His rumpled Beethoven is not the titanic fury from music history, belching smoke and fire, but a prickly egotist who's hamstrung from inability to create this one particular sound that Chekhov demands. His ego takes a beating. As long as time exists, he pontificates slyly, there will be the sound of his music, forever playing, but as long as time exists there will also be the absence of this simple, inexpressible sound, this "snapping string" that he can not create.
Along with the two fine actors, what is most impressive is the haunting sound design from John Peeples. It whispers in the background, hovers with snatches of organ music, string quartets, and solo instruments, all new-agey and nebulous. Absolutely perfect. It lifts the play to another, higher plain.
The verdict: Unfortunately, we have to fill in a lot of blanks. Maher tantalizes with swirling bits about the nature of creativity, grief, the endless universe, the physical world, the theater. Even Emily Dickinson gets a shoutout. This very short play - no more than 40 minutes - is both crystal and opaque. Images can be concrete and hard, then shattered by hazy contemplation and high-flying concepts. It's certainly unique, a thinking man's vaudeville. You won't soon forget it. But it leaves you wanting more, like maybe a second act to explain this odd, spiky little intro.
The Hunchback Variations continues through May 2 at Catastrophic Theatre, 1119 East Freeway @ Naylor. Purchase tickets online at catastrophictheatre.com or call 713-522-2723. Pay what you can.