In The Cherry Orchard, Anton Chekhov’s melancholy comedy about a family of Russian aristocrats who lose their estate, there appears one of the most famous passages in dramatic literature. It’s not a speech or a bit of dialogue but a stage direction: “Suddenly there is a distant sound, as if from the sky: the sound of a breaking string—dying away, sad.” This odd, abstract, almost metaphysical sound effect, symbolizing the imminent end of a way of life, has challenged directors and designers since the play’s 1904 premiere, a few months before Chekhov’s own death from tuberculosis.
The Hunchback Variations Opera takes its inspiration from that enduring dramaturgical koan, What is the sound of one string breaking? The 75-minute one-act from Theater Oobleck posits an attempt by two well-known musical artists to produce the ultimate aural embodiment of Chekhov’s elusive noise. The setting is an academic conference at which the pair are presenting the result of their labors.
The effort seems to have been doomed from the start. For one thing, both collaborators are deaf. For another, it’s hard to imagine how they could ever have met. One is Beethoven, the composer, who’s been dead since 1827. The other is Quasimodo, the hunchbacked, 15th-century bell ringer of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris—and a fictional character invented by Victor Hugo in an 1831 novel.
The setup is quintessential Oobleck—smart, eccentric, unpredictable, thought-provoking, and very funny. Since they arrived in Chicago 23 years ago, the itinerant ensemble—which takes its name from a Dr. Seuss book, Bartholomew and the Oobleck—has specialized in original works based on incongruous cultural cross-references. The first Oobleck show I saw, Three Who Dared (1988), examined the violent complexities of Middle Eastern politics by bringing together philosopher Martin Heidegger, deconstructionist literary critic Paul de Man, and Italian movie star Rossano Brazzi. The Making of Freud (1994) explored role-playing, fantasy, and Jewish identity by having Montgomery Clift set off for Vienna with Ludwig Wittgenstein to rescue the father of psychoanalysis from the Nazis. The Strangerer (2007) filtered a presidential campaign debate between George W. Bush and John Kerry through the prism of Albert Camus’s novel L’Etranger.
Written by composer Mark Messing and librettist Mickle Maher, and based on a 2001 play by Maher, The Hunchback Variations Opera is just what the title says it is: an opera, albeit a small one. It takes the form of 11 variations on the theme of artistic experimentation and failure, each of which Messing skillfully couches in its own musical style. The score is generally atonal and mildly dissonant, but there are some simple, lovely, melodic passages.
The singing is beautiful. George Andrew Wolff’s bright tenor contrasts effectively with Larry Adams’s round, chesty bass, and both singers have first-rate diction so the text is always clear. The counterpoint between Wolff’s cheerful, well-groomed Beethoven and Adams’s morose, grotesque Quasimodo is mirrored by the bold give-and-take of pianist Tim Lenihan and cellist Paul Ghica.
The stage is empty except for two chairs and a white table at which Beethoven and a hoodie-wearing Quasimodo sit. Quasimodo carries a beat-up satchel packed with different objects he’s used in his bid to create what he grudgingly calls Chekhov’s “impossible sound”: a bell, a rattle, two walkie-talkies, and other absurd items. Beethoven, meanwhile, is enthralled by the sound a book of Emily Dickinson poems makes as he ruffles the pages across a microphone.
For Quasimodo, the whole endeavor has been “a waste of time.” But Beethoven counteracts the bell ringer’s negativity with plucky optimism, defending both the experiment and its failure as “a deep mystery to be investigated.”
What’s never made clear is how exactly the experiment failed. The omission, of course, is deliberate. Maher and Messing make clear that, in art, failure itself is a failed notion. In the manner of other fringe theaters—and contrary to an increasing emphasis on competition in the performing arts, as the media celebrate the “winners” and “losers” of meaningless talent contests and mindless awards shows—Oobleck renders the concept of failure and success moot. The Hunchback Variations Opera, like The Cherry Orchard, is a meditation on futility. But Hunchback celebrates its characters’ aspirations, prizing process over product and championing the quixotic urge to create and to collaborate in a world that’s inhospitable to both.