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Performing Arts

Diana Slickman, left, as Ludwig van Beethoven and Colm O’Reilly as Quasimodo in “The Hunchback Variations,” which the two actors will perform March 15–17 in the Foundry Theater at Antioch College. (Submitted photo)

‘The Hunchback Variations’ dissects creative process

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The Foundry Theater will welcome Chicago-based theater collective Theater Oobleck to its experimental black box theater stage for three performances of “The Hunchback Variations” Friday and Saturday, March 15 and 16, at 7 p.m.; and Sunday, March 17, at 2 p.m.

The two-person play, which runs about 50 minutes with no intermission, stars Diana Slickman and Colm O’Reilly, respectively, as composer Ludwig van Beethoven and Quasimodo of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” fame. The unlikely duo comes together in “The Hunchback Variations” for a dissection of the creative process that the St. Louis Post-Dispatch called “cerebral, comic and just plain weird.”

The News spoke last week with playwright Mickle Maher, a founding member of Theater Oobleck who penned “The Hunchback Variations.” Maher described the theater collective’s formation as a “fairly typical story of like-minded people meeting in college” at the University of Michigan in the early 1980s, before moving to Chicago in 1988.

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Originally known as Streetlight Theater, the collective changed its name upon moving to Chicago, where there were several other similarly named theater companies. Maher said the group borrowed its new name from the Dr. Seuss book “Bartholomew and the Oobleck,” in which the sticky “oobleck” substance rains from the sky, quite literally gumming up the works of society.

“We liked that idea of something that arises out of magic and nature to mess up the status quo,” Maher said.

After more than 35 years, Maher added, a name is just a name — but the moniker speaks to the principles upon which Theater Oobleck was founded. A “playwright-driven company,” as Maher called it, Theater Oobleck’s early choice to work without directors was inspired, in part, by the founding members’ consensus-based political activism on campus, where they worked without a “central authority figure” — a method they found translated well to creative collaboration, too.

“It had this kind of leftist ideal behind it — but it quickly became more of an aesthetic thing,” Maher said.

With that aesthetic in mind, an important rule of thumb for those involved with Theater Oobleck, Maher said, has been that actors have the final say in how, or even if, a line in a script is read — a guiding principle Maher said creates a motivation for him as a playwright, as he works to “sell” his plays to those who would perform them.

“[Actors are] the ones who have to believe in it,” he said. “For me, in my process, if I’m in a room with actors who I know have to be persuaded that the lines they’re saying are good and effective — and knowing that they can change those lines if they don’t feel that — it keeps me on my toes and makes for a better play.”

“The Hunchback Variations” has evidently won over both actors and audiences as one of Theater Oobleck’s most popular plays — since its debut in 2001, it’s been performed with regularity in the U.S. and internationally. In 2012, it was adapted into a chamber opera.

Maher said the inspiration for the play came during a time when he was commissioned to write an adaptation of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” for another theater company. At the same time, he was working as a fundraiser for the Chicago Symphony, steeped in the world of classical music. With both things on his mind, he began to notice some coincidental ties between the fictional Quasimodo and the real-life Beethoven — the Victor Hugo novel was published around the same time Beethoven died, for example, and both are romantic, solitary figures.

The most important link between them, though, is that both have a unique relationship to sound, Maher said: Quasimodo lives among the bells of Notre Dame Cathedral, and Beethoven, a composer who eventually became deaf.

“I was thinking about romanticism and deafness and silence and sound, and those two figures in particular,” Maher said. “A lot of my plays try to bring things together that probably shouldn’t belong together — and then I try to make it work.”

He added, with a laugh: “So this is the result.”

Sound is not only central to the characters in “The Hunchback Variations,” but also to its premise. Over the course of 11 scenes — or variations, as the reworking of a musical theme throughout a longer piece is known — Beethoven and Quasimodo discuss, rehash and recontextualize as they attempt to re-create a pivotal sound effect described in Anton Chekhov’s final play, “The Cherry Orchard.”

Maher said there’s a certain amount of lore surrounding this particular sound effect among theater sound designers. It’s described this way in the play’s stage direction: “Suddenly a distant sound is heard as if from the sky, the sound of a breaking string, which dies away sadly.”

The sound effect’s description was apparently esoteric enough that even legendary theater director Konstantin Stanislavski was unable to interpret it to Chekhov’s liking.

“Chekhov was frustrated with the result Stanislavski came up with — and then he died,” Maher said. “And for the last 100 years, every production of ‘The Cherry Orchard’ has had a different take on the sound. The two characters [in ‘The Hunchback Variations’] are trying to figure out the sound — and that’s the play.”

Maher said the play — the premise of which reads like sketch comedy fodder before unfolding into a funny, moving exploration of artistic collaboration — can be challenging for audiences, even as it engages them.

“Sometimes, half the audience is cracking up, but I can tell there’s this tension from the other half, who are wondering, ‘What is so funny?’” Maher said. “So there’s always a good chance an audience won’t know what to make of it.”

He added: “But it’s short enough that nobody’s going to think, ‘That was torture’ — and it’s very well-performed.”

Theater Oobleck presents “The Hunchback Variations” Friday and Saturday, March 15 and 16, at 7 p.m., and Sunday, March 17, at 2 p.m., in the Foundry Theater at Antioch College. Tickets are $25 for adults and $5 for Antioch College students and youth ages 17 and under. Tickets are available online at bit.ly/FoundryTix.

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