KDHX Public Radio
'An Apology... By Doctor Faustus' and 'The Hunchback Variations''
by Steve Callahan
September 24, 2018
For nearly 20 years the Midnight Company has been serving up small, intriguing evenings of theater. These evenings can be wildly comic or intensely serious or strangely haunting - but they are usually deeply engaging. And they usually feature plays that are far off the beaten track. Midnight productions are often one-man performances by artistic director Joe Hanrahan, who is a gifted teller of tales.
Their current offering, now playing at the Monocle, is a double bill of brief pieces by Mickle Maher: "An Apology for the Course and Outcome of Certain Events, Delivered by Doctor John Faustus" and "The Hunchback Variations."
Both pieces are revivals of earlier Midnight productions and both feature Hanrahan with David Wasilak, who was co-founder of the company.
Mickle Maher, founder of Chicago's Theater Oobleck, is a very poet - in the same sense that Samuel Beckett is a poet: i.e. truly and totally. There is a deep sense of the music in language and of its theatrical effect; there is the gift of startling metaphor; there is piercing imagery; there is that wonderful efficiency. And there is the address of deep questions.
Faust, you recall, sold his soul to the devil in exchange for worldly powers and wisdom. Mephistopheles (Lucifer's sales rep) became Faust's servant. We pick up the story 24 years later - the "collection date" when Faust must die and be damned to an eternity in hell. Hanrahan is Faust. He's asked us here to apologize for ... well, it's not quite clear what his apologizing for. Perhaps just for the fact that he's done nothing at all significant or lasting with all the powers he purchased. Faust is generally rumpled (a look in which Hanrahan excels). He wears the world's tackiest plaid sport-coat. Wasilak, lean, dark and sleek, wears pure black - perhaps velvet - and those ominous reflective black shades.
Faust rambles on about the various irritations that arise when you are trapped for 24 years living with a "servant" who really has power over you. There are repeated minor insubordinations - as in Mephistopheles'continual habit of reading Faust's journal - even though that journal consists only of page after page after page of tallying hash-marks. And the servant will call his master "Johnny". We hear of their occasional time-travel, of a culture using a language in which there is only one word - but that word has a million syllables. At one point Faust passes out beer and potato chips to the audience.
Mephistopheles is a nearly silent role. He speaks only rarely and with terse articulation, but Wasilak projects a striking keen-ness and control.
To me, this piece, though not without delights, is rather pointless. It is simply a random walk through an original and, in fact, surrealistic imagination.
"The Hunchback Variations" is something altogether different. The format is that of a panel discussion. The panelists are Ludwig van Beethoven and Quasimodo. They sit before microphones. The topic is a long-term research project that the two have conducted. Each evening Beethoven would plod through the swamp to meet with Quasimodo in his wretched hut in the fens. Together they seek to create a notoriously impossible sound effect that Chekhov specifies in The Cherry Orchard:
"... as if coming from the sky, the sound of a breaking string. It fades away sadly".
(My preferred translation says"harp-string").
Of course Beethoven and Quasimodo were long dead before Chekhov wrote that play and of course Beethoven and Quasimodo were both stone deaf. But never mind that. In this surrealistic context these two explore a deep human question: Why, in the face of repeated and certain failure, do we continue to try? To try to achieve perfection? To try to attain the impossible? To merely communicate? Here Mickle Maher treads the same path as Beckett, whose shabby, seedy characters say, "I cant go on. I'll go on". Quasimodo, at least, wants nothing more than release from the urge to create.
Hanrahan, as Beethoven, manages to even look pretty much like Beethoven and Wasilak (apparently without prosthetics) presents a grotesquely distorted face. He wears the wreckage of spectacles - one lens messily covered with masking tape.
Frequently throughout the evening Quasimodo demonstrates their failed attempts: wind chimes, a slide whistle, a "fun alarm", a cow-in-a-can, a ukulele, a whoopee cushion, a toy accordion, a kazoo.
The sketch comes to an end. And then starts over again (with different dialogue) - seven times.
Beethoven is enthusiastic and optimistic about the project, though he contributes only a single suggestion: the sound of the pages of Emily Dickenson's collected poems riffled into the microphone. Quasimodo is far more deeply invested, and his final "goodbye to The Cherry Orchard" is profoundly moving. This is Wasilak's very finest moment in all the many roles I've seen him play.
So it's another fun, fascinating, unconventional evening with The Midnight Company.
FAUSTival Continues with Midnight Company's Witty 'Apology...by Doctor Faustus'
by Mark Bretz
September 25, 2018
Story: Many years ago, Dr. John Faustus made a deal with the devil. He sold his soul to Mephistopheles in exchange for unlimited worldly pleasures. Now, alas, the good times are about to end. With Mephistopheles patiently sitting in the background, sunglasses keeping the glare of the lights from his sensitive eyes, Dr. Faustus expounds upon a myriad of topics with an unknown audience somewhere in time.
He rambles on in his rumpled, checkered blazer and baggy trousers. He tries to make sense of where he is, someplace in a future era where he can buy beer for "kings" at a store known by its numbers. He's in a jovial mood, passing around brew and something called potato chips to his strange albeit receptive audience.
Mostly, Dr. Faustus ruminates about what's he's learned and about the futility he expects will be delivered by Mephistopheles, who has been his faithful companion for some 24 years. Faustus is annoyed that the devil has read the doctor's diary every single day in that span, but Faustus has the last laugh-cuz essentially he's written nonsense in the book. Hah!
In "The Hunchback Variations" composer Ludwig van Beethoven is joined in a panel discussion by none other than Quasimodo, the title character in Victor Hugo's classic novel, "The Hunchback of Notre Dame". Unfortunately, neither of them can hear but that doesn't stop them from debating the precise sound called for by playwright Anton Chekhov in his drama, "The Cherry Orchard".
We see one variation, then another and another, etc. While Beethoven presides over the lecture, Quasimodo selects one instrument of sound (a slide whistle, a kazoo, a soda bottle) each time in their elusive quest to locate the exact sound expressed in Chekhov's notes. Apparently, it doesn't matter that neither one of them can hear it if they should happen to stumble upon it.
Highlights: The Midnight Company reprises two comedies by Chicago playwright Mickle Maher from performances in 2002 and 2010 for its witty contribution to the ongoing FAUSTival, five monthly plays being performed from August through December by a quintet of local theatrical companies in venues around town.
Other Info: While "The Hunchback Variations" has its moments, "Doctor Faustus" is by far the better of the two short works. The former is too much of a one-trick pony, something all the fade-outs at Midnight Company's disposal can't camouflage. It does have its share of humor, though, especially Wassilak's impersonation of a fictional character, squinting through his left eye and wearing a shabby pair of glasses with the left lens covered by masking tape. Clever fellow.
Hanrahan's Beethoven is jovial as the moderator, although he can get a bit terse when he remarks to Quasimodo that neither of them can hear any sounds. Of course, how Beethoven can reply to anything Quasimodo says without looking at him and reading lips is something for Maher to explain.
Hanrahan is in fine form as the philosophical Faustus, earnestly attempting to get one final jab in against Mephistopheles, who remains cool and calm throughout his captive's ultimate lament. Maher's writing is amusing and beguiling, while Hanrahan delivers the pithy prose in a carefully constructed characterization which has one rooting just a bit for the cocky medieval scholar.
St Louis Eats and Drinks
An Apology for the Course and Outcome of Certain Events Delivered by Doctor John Faustus on This His Final Evening and The Hunchback Variations
September 22, 2018
FAUSTival, a collaborative series of four plays based on the Faust legend and the numerous works of art that sprang from it, has a September offering from The Midnight Company. It's a double bill, the first being"An Apology for the Course and Outcome of Certain Events Delivered by Doctor John Faustus on This His Final Evening", followed by"The Hunchback Variations", both from author Mickle Maher.
Joe Hanrahan, Midnight's artistic director, and David Wassilak team up for both plays. In"Apology", Hanrahan is Dr. Faustus, and we do indeed meet him as he is about to go to hell as per the terms of his agreement with Mephistopheles, Wassilak, resplendent in a purple velvet blazer and immense shades. (If you're not familiar with the story, in a nutshell, Faust sold his eternal soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge and pleasure.) On the final day of his earthly life, Faust is plagued by his "servant", Mephistopheles, whom, he complains, reads his diary and sits on his bed eating boiled eggs. It's immediately clear we're in absurdist land (Absurdistan?) and we're off to the adventure, including recalling yesterday's trip to the future to buy Hanrahan some clothes at a strange store with the name "Army" in it and visit another whose name he can't recall, either, except that it was "two words that rhymed, a sort of poem". Hanrahan delivers the near-monologue as perfect, casual conversation and Wassilak manages to glower without our ever seeing his eyes, no small trick, that.
Deeper in Absurdistan,"The Hunchback Variations"are a panel discussion between Ludwig van Beethoven, played by Hanrahan, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Wassilak.
Don't be put off by the phrase "panel discussion"; we're dealing with a real person and a fictional character who lived (or "lived") three hundred years apart, so it's readily apparent this won't be the usual threadbare beating of expiring horses. And don't be surprised by the repetition of the scene over and over - watching things fall apart is the game. Wassilak in particular is phenomenal. St. Louis theatre-goers have seen him for years but may never have realized he has an amazingly rubbery face.
Judy Newmark Blog
Midnight Returns in Strong, Offbeat Form
September 26, 2018
Joe Hanrahan, one of the most adventurous artists in St. Louis theater, has reunited with the magnetic actor David Wassilak for a pair of short, brainy, and (let's be honest) fairly weird plays by Mickle Maher on the tiny stage at the Monocle, a bar in The Grove. Years ago, Hanrahan and Wassilak cofounded The Midnight Company; it's great to see that the two of them, onstage a kind of cerebral Mutt and Jeff, still have their onstage chemistry.
The show is part of FAUSTival, a group of productions organized by several small companies around the legend of Faust, a scholar who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for unlimited knowledge and pleasure. The opening piece, "An Apology for the Course and Outcome of Certain Events Delivered by Doctor John Faustus," finds the title character (Hanrahan) at the end of his life, not so much fearful of the future as fed up with his apparently unsatisfactory past. The Devil (Wassilak, a haunting and mostly silent figure in black crushed velvet) never leaves Faust alone. He's always around, eating in bed and reading Faust's diary. Faust tries to outwit him by writing nothing but scratch marks, ticking off his days in groups of five. The Devil is undeterred. Like it or not, we always give ourselves away.
They make an arresting pair in that first play; the second, which is simply hilarious, is "The Hunchback Variations." (Midnight first staged it with the same cast in 2002.) Structured as a panel discussion that goes wrong and starts over time after time after time, the play presents Ludwig von Beethoven (Hanrahan) and Quasimodo, the Hunchback of Notre Dame (Wassilak) explaining a failed experiment. Together, the two men tried to create the mystifying, distant sound ("like a string snapping") that Anton Chekov calls for in the stage directions for "The Cherry Orchard."
This is an unlikely collaboration, to say the least. Beethoven is real, Quasimodo is fictional. They aren't contemporaries in time (real or imagined) and both their stories end before "The Cherry Orchard" debuted. Plus, they're both deaf. An experiment in theatrical sound? It's pointless.
ndeed, the whole play explores the impossibility of success in art (as ineffable as Chekhov's sound, which has apparently never been heard outside of the playwrite's head) and in collaboration. Hanranhan's Beethoven is an irritable snob who won't let raggedy Quasimodo into his house. Wassilak's shambling bell-ringer finds increasing nerve to list his many, many complaints about his "fellow artist." It's smart and funny - and in the end, of course, turns on itself. This slight play, after all, is itself a fine example of artistic collaboration and success.
Midnight's production runs through September 29. FAUSTival continues through the fall with Theatre Nuevo's production of "wither should I fly" and SATE's production of a new adaptation of "Doctor Faustus, or, The Modern Prometheus." It's too bad that the line-up doesn't include a restaging of the Black Rep's production of "Robert Johnson: Trick the Devil," in which Ron Himes gave a powerful performance 15 years ago. That could have offered a really different take on this resonant legend.
St. Louis Limelight
Hanrahan and Wassilak Are Devilishly Fun at the FAUSTival
By Jeff Ritter
September 27, 2018
"An Apology for the Course and Outcome of Certain Events Delivered by Doctor John Faustus on This His Final Evening" must undoubtedly be one of the longest titles for an English language play ever. Ironically, it's not actually that long of a play.
Joe Hanrahan and David Wassilak performed the show as part of the FAUSTival series at The Monocle in St. Louis' "The Grove" neighborhood off Kingshighway. The program also included Hanrahan and Wassilak performing "The Hunchback Variations." Chicago playwright Mickle Maher wrote both plays.
The staging for "Apology/Faustus" was very simple. Wassilak, wearing a nondescript featureless shirt, pants, and sunglasses, entered silently, stared at the audience for a moment through his dark lenses, and sat down on a plain chair. It wasn't quite as awe-inspiring an entrance as The Undertaker at a WWE event, but it served its purpose.
Hanrahan followed wearing a suit jacket reminiscent of Fruit-Stripe bubblegum. He then launched into what came across as a stream of conscience ramble by Doctor Faustus (I didn't catch what kind of doctor he actually was) who had sold his soul to the devil long ago for a much longer but not infinite life. Hanrahan's Faustus addresses Wassilak as Mephistopheles, a demon and agent of Hell waiting to collect Doctor Faustus and bring him to Hell at the appointed time.
Despite the simple set and premise, the show could only succeed with a talent like Joe Hanrahan, one of St. Louis' premiere storytellers, delivering this seemingly disconnected dialogue with his trademark balance of conviction and Midwestern charm.
As an apology goes, it's not the best-Faustus isn't a particularly nice or contrite fellow after all-but there are observations of the human condition and wry humor along with accusatios of Mephistopheles meddling in his affairs to be found in the ramblings of Hanrahan's doomed doctor. Wassilak's expressionless, near silent presence lends just enough menace to the scene. The only thing missing was a brief introduction by Rod Serling, smoking at far stage right and reminding us that the devil always gets his due, even in the Twilight Zone.
For the second half of the performance, "The Hunchback Variations," the feeling was a little less "Twilight Zone" and a little more "Groundhog Day." Seated at a table littered with various objects are Ludwig Von Beethoven (Hanrahan) and Quasimodo (Wassilak). They are dressed as you would expect each to be, Beethoven in a conservative period coat and Quasimodo in brown pauper garb.
Beethoven introduces them and welcomes the audience to their press conference regarding the "enigmatic sound" from a stage direction found in Anton Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard." The scene itself is very short, but is repeated again and again with subtle tweaks. It's a difficult collaboration as Beethoven is a real person, Quasimodo is a fictional character and both are stone deaf. Hanrahan's Beethoven is a convivial host, and Wassilak's hunchback is a sad, tragic character who tries everything from a slide whistle to a whoopie cushion to achieve Chekhov's enigmatic sound, always to no avail. Each time the scene repeats it somehow gets both funnier and bleaker.
It wasn't clear if these two plays were performed together because they're both Mickle Maher pieces, or because "The Hunchback Variations" are Sisyphean in nature and thus tangentially connected as being a Hellish exercise in futility, thus tangentially related to one another through the Devil who isn't actually present in either. It's poignant, funny, and bizarre-a rare and worthwhile combination.
The Midnight Theatre Company is participating in the FAUSTival with four other local theatre companies. It started off with Equally Represented Arts presenting "Faust (go down with all the rest)" in mid-August. The Midnight Company's "An Apology for the Course and Outcome of Certain Events Delivered by Doctor John Faustus on This His Final Evening" / "The Hunchback Variations". Runs at the Monocle at 4510 Manchester Avenue through September 29, 2018. Theatre Nuevo follows with "whither should I fly" Oct 25 - Nov 10. SATE is next with "Doctor Faustus, or the Modern Prometheus," Oct 31 - Nov 17. The FAUSTival closes with Post-Romantics presenting "Doomsday Faust," Dec 5-8.
Snoops Theatre Thoughts
FAUSTival Continues With Compelling, Bizarre Entry From the Midnight Company
by Michelle Kenyon
September 29, 2018
It's FAUSTival part 2! As the latest entry in the extended "festival" featuring works from various local theatre companies, Joe Hanrahan's Midnight Company is presenting something that's appropriately Faustian and also reflective of the Midnight Company's offbeat style. And, also as is usual for this company, the result is well-cast, thoughtful, and fascinating.
A revival of a production staged a few years ago, this is a set of two separate one-act pieces, one of which is a "Faust" tale. Both, however, are somewhat metaphysical explorations of concepts and characters. AN APOLOGY is, essential, just what the title says. Here, Hanrahan plays Dr. John Faustus on the last day of his life on earth, having agreed to sell his soul 20 years earlier to Mephistopheles (David Wassilak), who spends most of the play looming in the background, clad in black velvet and wearing sunglasses and appearing somewhat bored of Faustus's whole spiel. For Faustus's part, he's in regret mode, as well as desperate to hold on to a semblance of privacy as he recounts his efforts to keep some privacy from Mephistopheles, who as part of the agreement has lived as Faustus's servant for the past 20 years, a constant, annoying presence and reminder of Faustus's pride and rashness. The casting here is strong, with Wassilak's presence being suitably menacing by just sitting there most of the time, and Hanrahan's Faustus being increasingly desperate and grasping for some sort of meaning in his life that's about to end in moments. Since it's essentially a long speech with a few brief interruptions by Mephistopheles, it does tend to get rambling and a little hard to follow at times, although Hanrahan's presence keeps it interesting, as do some clever immersive elements involving Faustus handing out beer and chips to the audience. It's a particularly philosphical and condensed take on the "Faust" story, with more of an introspective focus as Faust tries to gain the audience's sympathy.
While "An Apology" certainly has its moments, especially in terms of its exploration of language and the concept of time and the overall brevity of life, the more entertaining piece of the evening is the more fast-moving, comic seminar-styled "The Hunchback Variations". Here, there's much more of a focus on humor, and the situation is even more bizarre than it is in the first play. Here, the audience is given an imaginary scenario in which composer Ludwig Van Beethoven (Hanrahan) and Victor Hugo's "Hunchback of Notre Dame" character, Quasimodo (Wassilak) are seated at a table littered with various offbeat musical instruments (kazoo, tin whistle, etc.) and are giving a lecture recounting their efforts to identify an elusive sound described in a stage direction in Anton Chekhov's play "The Cherry Orchard". The show is essentially a series of vignettes, with similar staging and introduction, as the two, usually led by the more outwardly confident Beethoven, recount their efforts to meet and discover this mysterious sound, as the more sullen, earnest Quasimodo plays various sounds and expresses more of an initially pessimistic outlook about their meetings. This is a fascinating play on many levels-first, it's hilarious, and the comic timing is impeccable. Second, it's also kind of sad, as we see the futility and failure of the endeavor as they recount attempt after attempt with the big unasked question lingering in the air-what's the point? The interplay between these two characters presents their relationship as sometimes companions in futility, sometimes frenemies. It's an intriguing dynamic to watch, and both players play their parts extremely well, from Hanrahan's bossy, overconfident Beethoven to Wassilak's gruff-voiced, weary but still hopeful Quasimodo.
Both of these plays are presented in a small backroom at the Monocle bar in the Grove neighborhood, and the intimate setting adds to the mood in both plays. This is a thoughtful, sometimes funny, somtimes profound, always unusual production, showcasing two excellent local actors. It's a worthwhile theatrical experience.