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The Hunchback Variations

In the Fall of 2001, David Wassilak and his girlfriend (and frequent Midnight collaborator) Mary Schnitzler visited Chicago. There, David spotted a play being performed that intrigued him. It was Theater Oobleck's production of THE HUNCHBACK VARIATIONS, written by one of Oobleck's founders, Mickle Maher.

Presented in a storefront setting, and performed by Maher as Beethoven and Colm O'Reilly as Quasimodo, the play lived up to all of David's expectations. He fell in love with it, and on his return to St. Louis, immediately set about getting a copy of the script, exposing it to his Midnight partner Joe Hanrahan, and then securing the rights for a Midnight presentation of the play.

Midnight scheduled their production for late May, 2002, at Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, where they had previously presented POUNDING NAILS IN THE FLOOR WITH MY FOREHEAD and THE BALLAD OF JESSE JAMES.

The museum provided an appropriate setting for another Midnight production. The current exhibit was a series of different artists' visions of maps - both traditional (and very untraditional) takes on maps.

With HUNCHBACK running approximately 35 minutes, the Company rounded out the evening with a series of introductory entertainments of their own making.

The audience was greeted by music played by Andrew Schiefelbein. Actress Brooke Edwards and Hanrahan then strolled through the gallery, looking at the art, and beginning a halting dialogue before the audience knew the show had started. This was a Richard Foreman piece, adapted by Wassilak.Their conversation set up an evening in, around and about art and communication.

A company-devised curtain speech followed, with Hanrahan as a typical smarmy non-profit money-raiser, interrupted and heckled to good effect by Wassilak as a suspicious audience member.

Edwards returned as Emily Dickinson (who figures in the HUNCHBACK play) in a rare and unique live reading, enlivened by some unexpected musical guests.

And then Wassilak and Hanrahan began THE HUNCHBACK VARIATIONS.

Midnight was pleased to welcome playwright Mickle Maher and original Quasimodo Colm O'Reilly to their audience. There was actually a London production of HUNCHBACK that weekend, but simultaneously, Midnight's was the first production of the play, and Maher was eager to see someone else tackle it. Their presence (and the conversations in a bar after the performance) measurably enriched the experience of this play for the Company.

by Judith Newmark
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Ludwig Van Beethoven and Quasimodo don't have much in common.

One's historic, the other fictional. One's an acclaimed genius, the other an oppressed laborer.

But the great real-life composer and the imaginary hunchback of Notre Dame share one special quality: deafness. That makes them either ideal, or ideally mismatched, students of one of the most peculiar details of theatre history - which happens to be (you guessed it) a sound effect.

Their “study” dominates THE HUNCHBACK VARIATIONS, an avant-garde comedy by Chicago playwright Mickle Maher. The play, which explores the nature of artistic collaboration, will make its St. Louis premiere thanks to another pair of artists, Joe Hanrahan and David Wassilak.

Together, they are The Midnight Company - a collaboration that seems as apt as the one Maher dreamed up for the stage. Long-familiar figures on the St. Louis theatre scene, both Hanrahan and Wassilak act, direct and know their way around production. More important, probably, is an offbeat sensibility they share, plus a willingness (maybe even a preference) for doing things that nobody else is doing.

And in places where nobody else is doing them. From the Midnight point of view, it made perfect sense to stage an adaptation of DRACULA in an abandoned brewery, a modern romance in a TV production studio, and a folksy, music-inflected drama about the James Gang at, among other places, an art gallery, a bar and the Jesse James homestead.

Hanrahan wrote all those scripts himself. But Midnight also has presented plays by other authors, ranging from the furious wordplay of ragemaster Eric Bogosian to the enigmatic elegance of Nobel laureate Samuel Beckett. Maher, with a quirky imagination that aligns nicely with the Midnight aesthetic, seems like a particularly good choice.

In THE HUNCHBACK VARATIONS, Quasimodo (whose 19th- century creator, Victor Hugo, set his story in the 15th century) and Beethoven (1770-1827) get together to solve a problem in THE CHERRY ORCHARD, written by Anton Chekhov in 1904.

Here's the problem: Twice in THE CHERRY ORCHARD, Chekhov inserts the most curious stage direction anybody's ever seen. He calls for a distant sound, “like the sound of a string snapping” that slowly dies away.

Forget what it's supposed to mean. Ask the simpler question: What the heck is it supposed to sound like?

Nobody can figure that out, though many have tried, including the great Moscow Art Theatre director Konstantin Stanislavsky. (And Chekhov said that he got it wrong.) In Maher's play, Quasimodo and Beethoven have teamed up to capture the sound that Chekhov had in mind and are presenting their results in a formal conference setting. “It starts out a a parody of academia,” Hanrahan said, with each man bringing his own special abilities to the mix.

Maher's Beethoven is motivated by the pure love of intangible sound, says Hanrahan, who will play the character. Quasimodo “brings the drive to their effort,” according to his portrayer, Wassilak. “He's the one who keeps coming up with different sounds to try.” This wildly ahistorical collision takes the play beyond parody, Hanrahan says, into “a very smart, very funny, very thoughtful look at artistic collaboration - his challenges and also its potential.” His own collaborator, Wassilak, nods in silent accord.

by Judy Newmark
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Cerebral, comic and just plain weird, the Midnight Company's production of THE HUNCHBACK VARIATIONS takes a middtown stage in terms of St. Louis geography - but its soul is in downtown Manhattan.

The composite of several short pieces, the production focuses and refocuses related questions, all dealing with how art is made and how it affects, or fails to affect, its audience. Each scene reveals a different point of view - sometimes, several different viewpoints in quick succession.

The result is a kind of cubist theater, as concerned with the exploration of elements as it is with an overall design. That feels right, because HUNCHBACK is presented in an art museum, and its first scene takes place in one.

In the gallery scene - adapted by Midnight's David Wassilak from a script by playwright Richard Foreman - a man and a woman (Joe Hanrahan and Brooke Edwards), probably strangers, indulge in a little intellectual-sexual sparring that goes nowhere. They don't give eachother, or the paintings, a chance. Next, in a hilarious send-up, Hanrahan portrays a smarmy pitchman begging for money for his theater troupe, eager to accomodate the cynical heckler (Wassilak) putting him down. Then Edwards returns as Emily Dickinson (“in a rare, live performance”), set to give a subdued poetry reading but all too ready for the liberation of rock ‘n roll.

Finally comes the main event, THE HUNCHBACK VARIATIONS by Chicago playwright Mickle Maher. The collision of Dickinson's refined voice and the siren pulse of rock makes an ideal transition into Maher's play, a wildly ahistorical work. Ludwig Van Beethoven (Hanrahan), the great composer, whose life straddled the 18th and 19th centuries, and Quasimodo (Wassilak), whose fictional life as the hunchback of Notre Dame transpired in 15th century Paris, attempt to creatte an elusive sound effect in Anton Chekhov's THE CHERRY ORCHARD, written in 1904.

They don't succeed, though, and the play takes the form of a panel discussion in which they explain their failure.

The play includes repeated stops and starts, each scene raising a question about creative collaboration: authenticity, resentment, shared hope and lonely hopelessness. Finally, the whole problem turns on a mystery. “Where,” Quasimodo inquires through a hideous, patently theatrical mask that muffles his voice, “is the place for the uncreated?”

The evening doesn't answer that question, or for that matter, any others. It has a lot of ideas but won't, or perhaps can't, see them through. But it raises intriguing questions to linger over, and their presentation is far more entertaining than such serious subject matter might suggest.

by Bob Wilcox
West End Word

THE HUNCHBACK VARIATIONS is indeed a set of variations - but not musical variations, though they are about sound.

THE HUNCHBACK VARIATIONS is a short play. Two men sit at a table facing the audience. They are reporting on work they have been doing, as if they were speaking to a seminar of an academic conference. After each report of five or 10 minutes, the lights fade to black, then come up, and the report begins all over again - with variations.

One of the men is Quasimodo, Victor Hugo's hunchback bell-ringer of Notre Dame cathedral - hence, THE HUNCHBACK VARIATIONS. The other is Ludwig Van Beethoven. Both men are deaf. They have been collaborating on an effort to create the sound that the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov calls for at the end of the second and fourth acts of THE CHERRY ORCHARD - a play written after the real death of the real Beethoven and long after the fictional death of the fictional Quasimodo.

The sound the pair invents sounds like a string breaking in the distance and gradually fading away. In each of the variations, Quasimodo produces one of the sounds that the pair has come up with - a kazoo, a wind chime, a slide-whistle. Each time, Beethoven responds, “That is not the sound.”

Playwright Mickle Maher has come up with an ingenious way of exploring what happens when we exercise our imaginations, trying to make art or something like it, and the added complications of collaboration, trying to work with another to bring to life the ceation of a third person. Quasimodo does most of the talking, reading from his note cards, while Beethoven acts as moderator of their little panel, doing the introductions and making occasional comments. Quasimodo increasingly expresses the strain of their relationship, until by the fourth time around, he cries to his partner, “I curse you!” Playwright Maher mines his odd couplling not only for the fun of its anachronistic cross-references but for serious observations on art and human relationships. Much of this is both amusing and absorbing, though I felt sometimes he found himself stretching the material a little too thin.

But there's nothing thin about the performances by the two partners in The Midnight Company, the producers of THE HUNCHBACK VARIATIONS. David Wassilak plays Quasimodo. His head encased in a twisted beige mask, dressed in earth-hued clothes (both the work of Evonne Baum), Wassilak has only his voice to express Quasimodo's mounting frustration and rage. He speaks in measured, deliberate tones, gradually accumulating power. Joe Hanrahan wears Beethoven's touseled hair and frequent frown, but he also catches the wry humor lurking both in Beethoven's lines and in his music.

The Midnight Company performed THE HUNCHBACK VARIATIONS at Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis (formerly Forum for Contemporary Art). The evening began when we realized that the two people standing at the front of the room looking at the pictures on the gallery walls were actually actors - Hanrahan and Brooke Edwards - performing a brief dialogue by Richard Foreman, adapted by Wassilak. Almost contentless, the exchanges could have been an externalized interior monologue about dealing with what our lives are. This was followed by Hanrahan's welcome to the audience, that turned out to be a parody of the kind of fund-raising pitch so often endured at not-for-profit theaters, with Wassilak heckling from the audience. Then, as the two men got into costume, Brooke Edwards returned as Emily Dickinson, reading her poems, which were punctuated by loud rock music on which Emily increasingly grooved. Again, we saw the vagaries of artistic collaboration.

THE HUNCHBACK VARIATIONS closed last Saturday. But The Midnight Company will be back, no doubt with something equally fascinating. Watch for it.

The Hunchback Variations

The Company was notified in the Spring of 2003 that their production of Mickle Maher's THE HUNCHBACK VARIATIONS had been chosen to appear at the 7th annual Philadelphia Fringe Festival. A three-week gathering of over 1200 theatre, dance, music, performance, spoken word, movement and visual artists from all over the world, the Fringe selection was an exciting honor for the Company ­ not only as the first St. Louis group to appear at this prestigious Festival, but also for the chance to expose their work to audiences outside of St. Louis.

With the Philadelphia shows scheduled over the opening Labor Day weekend of the Festival, Midnight chose to give St. Louis audiences a couple more chances to see HUNCHBACK, with one weekend runs at The Commonspace in August, and at Technisonic Studios in late September.

In Philadelphia, HUNCHBACK was booked into Mum Puppettheatre, a great 80-seat storefront theatre, on a bill with New York dancer Karen Bernard's THE MADONNA SONGS.

As one of at least a dozen shows being presented each day during the Festival, Midnight had to share audiences with other offerings, but MIDNIGHT/MADONNA (as the overall presentation was billed) audiences grew with each performance, and were uniformly responsive.

Most of the Festival took place in Philadelphia's Old City, a very concentrated area, where most usable spaces were turned into performance space. It made for a full and week of activities. Midnight's hotel was on the site where Ben Franklin started the original University of Pennsylvania campus, and Ben himself was buried on the same block, along with several other signers of the Declaration of Independence and other historical types. The Liberty Bell and the new Constitution Museum were a stone's throw from their hotel, and walking to their shows each night, Joe and David passed Betsy Ross's house. Old City is also the site of an evolving restaurant/bar/gallery scene, which the boys of Midnight took time to sample.

In summary, Midnight's Philadelphia experience was a good one: viewing some of the best of current “fringe” theatre, presenting their own work to new audiences, and cramming in as much extracurricular fun as possible. In retrospect, the Festival is a very contained one, with most of the work there, by, for and often about Philadelphia. Breaking into the consciousness of local newspapers and audiences with so much being presented, is challenging, even for local groups.

But the Midnight Company was proud of its work there, pleased with its reception, and somewhat giddy about some of the fun of it all. All in all, a splendid time was had.

for more information, visit The Fringe website.


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Revised: October, 2007
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