Oobleck habitué Mickle Maher’s much-admired 2001 piece The Hunchback Variations centered on a premise as odd as it was inspired: a panel discussion between composer Ludwig van Beethoven and fictional hunchback Quasimodo, former bell ringer at Notre-Dame de Paris. The subject: the duo’s attempts to create an impossible sound effect twice called for in Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. The “variations,” as in music: 11 forms on the theme.
This new adaptation takes the next logical step. Mucca Pazza maestro Mark Messing, using Maher’s text as libretto, sets Beethoven and Quasi’s nettlesome forensics camp to a spiky score for piano and cello. Beethoven (arch tenor George Andrew Wolff), counterintuitively presented in snappy modern dress with heavy-framed hipster glasses, sits alongside a rueful Quasimodo (baritone Larry Adams in a ripped-up black hoodie) as the two present their findings on Chekhov’s infernal challenge.
The result is as serious as it is silly, with Messing’s music amping up the stakes with its contrapuntal vocals. Despite the score’s constraints of pitch and tempo, Wolff and Adams find a remarkable range from glib comedy to soulful sorrow in their characters’ variations. Maher’s text, while reveling in its own absurdities, slowly becomes a worthy meditation on the irresistible and often frustrating character of the creative impulse—and the subsuming nature of creative failure. Though the staging is simple, the operatic sweep feels apropos.