By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
The comedy that opens Friday in a Northern Light Theatre production starts in absurdity, a concept that’s taken a beating from reality, times being what they are.
Start with this: The Hunchback Variations is a panel discussion on sound delivered by a pair of history’s most famous Deaf artistes: Beethoven (Ian Leung) and Quasimodo (Dave Clarke), the bell-ringer of Notre Dame.
In the 11 scenes of the 20-year-old piece by the American playwright Mickle Maher, co-founder of Chicago’s Theatre Oobleck, the unlikely collaborators are working to create “an impossible, mysterious sound.” It’s Chekhov’s elusive stage direction at the end of The Cherry Orchard: “Suddenly a distant sound is heard, coming as if out of the sky, like the sound of a string snapping, slowly and sadly dying away.”
“It’s fascinating, uncanny, the shows Trevor (Northern Light artistic director Trevor Schmidt) picks for this time … and the way this piece fits into the world,” says director Davina Stewart. She points to an NLT season devoted to exploring “failure and setback and how we move on from them.” It’s a mapless terrain the performing arts in the pandemic have been forced to confront, over and over, in the last two years.
“Are we living in an absurd world?” Stewart asks the question, and there’s a follow-up. And what does absurdity even mean in an absurd world? In our precarious moment in history, when certainties freeze and snap off (or mutate into variants), every arrival and departure is conditional, with an odds-against clause. En route to rehearsal last week Clarke texted Stewart to advise that he’d be a bit late. It was so cold the doors of the bus froze shut, and he couldn’t get off.
The Hunchback Variations is the third Northern Light production Stewart has worked on since the pandemic, the first two as an actor. Confessions of a Reluctant Caregiver was cancelled mid-rehearsal in March 2020. She and Patricia Darbasie did a film version of Something Unspoken, when it became clear that live in-person performance wasn’t an option last May.
In The Hunchback Variations a scene repeats, with small but crucial adjustments in wording and tone, 11 times. Stewart finds an analogy in the serial Warhol portraits of Marilyn Monroe, each modified in minute but meaningful ways.
In each variation Beethoven does the honours. He introduces himself and his partner, “hunchback and former bell ringer,” and welcomes us to a panel discussion on the mysterious and possibly impossible sound. Quasimodo presides over a selection of noise-making devices and samples a different one. And every time Beethoven says “that is not the sound.”
As Stewart says, a smile in her voice, Clarke as Quasimodo “is re-living some of his life as a sound designer…. ‘How about this sound” No, that’s not it. OK how about this sound? Nope…. Dave says he’s had lots of experience of people telling him that’s not the sound he wants.” And now he’s playing a character who gets that from his creative partner in every scene. Schmidt’s interview with playwright Maher (you can find it on the Northern Light webside, northernlighttheatre.com) reveals that the original inspiration was an unusual project that paired playwright/directors and sound designers.
The broader question, Stewart thinks, is about the ways collaboration works en route to creation. She was glued to the Beatles doc that unspools the hits back to their origin. It takes us into the room with the band “when they have nothing, and ideas are being embraced or rejected. You’re watching that collaboration occur. And it’s so interesting because we have more knowledge than they do. We know what the outcome will be.”
Progress is incremental — or non-existent in the case of Beethoven and Quasimodo, those unlikely collaborators, one real and one fictional. Maher says in his NLT interview that they’re connected “primarily as being notoriously grumpy Deaf guys.” True, they could have worked at Beethoven’s place since he’s the one with the nice digs. Or Beethoven could have gotten around to reading The Cherry Orchard. But Quasimodo says flat out “our failure was certain.” If their artistic quest is doomed, the mystery is the creative drive that keeps them trying.
In these COVID-ian times we know something first-hand about variations. “The way the play repeats itself,” as Stewart muses, speaks powerfully to “what’s happening to us daily, how we’ve been repeating ourselves, what our expectations are, what’s considered a success or a failure.”
As she and the actors have worked on the play, that question has fascinated, and haunted them, Stewart reports, more than the absurd comedy of the piece. “It’s uncanny. Ah, so we don’t get to do something the way we imagined we were going to do it … is it no longer a success? What makes an artistic failure?”
And in an age of cancellations, postponements, and pivots, “what do we do with those pieces of work that don’t get to come to light? Where do they go?” wonders Stewart, cued by the play. As Quasimodo puts it, “where is the room for keeping all the nothings?” The ether must be full of their ghosts by now, she says, “like all the birthdays and Christmases and concerts missed during COVID. We have two years of that; it’s kind of a blur.”
“What do you do with a failed recipe? Do you turn it into something else? Do you throw it out and start again? So many people are feeling that the tasks we have are impossible, that we can’t get anywhere. Is the act of doing something, is that success?”
“It happens a lot in TEDTalks, successful people talking about failures and how we build on them….”
Now a play that seems to be tuned to the setbacks built into our lives. At 45 minutes, “the play is a good length for the world right now,” thinks Stewart. “It’s been a while since we sat in a room and watched things with others. Some people have done it more than others…. I’ve been very fortunate to have the chance to be creating and collaborating with other people!”
The Hunchback Variations
Theatre: Northern Light Theatre
Written by: Mickle Maher
Directed by: Davina Stewart
Starring: Ian Leung, Dave Clarke
Where: Studio Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barns
Running: Friday through Jan 29