Creating ‘the impossible, mysterious sound’: The Hunchback Variations, a Fringe review

The Hunchback Variations. Poster photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

The Hunchback Variations (Stage 3, Studio Theatre)

By Liz Nicholls,

A curious pair arrives onstage at the start of this smart, touching, genuinely odd, sometimes trying two-hander comedy. “Good evening and welcome …” says the brisk, professionally genial guy in the business-casual suit at the outset, evidently a veteran of such occasions. “I am Ludwig Van Beethoven, composer, and on my left is Quasimodo,  hunchback and former bell ringer for Notre Dame de Paris.”

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The absurdist premise of The Hunchback Variations, an enigmatic 2002 comedy by  Chicago playwright Mickle Maher stops you in your tracks: it’s a panel discussion on sound delivered by two of history’s most famous Deaf artists.

Unlikely collaborators, they’ve been working to create the “impossible, mysterious sound” demanded by Chekhov’s famously elusive stage direction at the end of Act II, and again the final scene, 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.”

Ian Leung and Dave Clarke, The Hunchback Variations. Photo supplied.

Directed by Davina Stewart originally for the Northern Light Theatre season just past (a COVID cancellation), the piece unspools in 11 variations, with minor adjustments. The grotesquely masked Quasimodo (actor Dave Clarke, ironically a sound designer himself) presides over a table of assorted noise-makers — rolls of cellotape, a melodica, a bell, finger harp, coconut shells … — and sounds them at random intervals. 

In each case Beethoven — veering between abrupt dismissal, condescension, bemusement, and enforced affability in Leung’s perfectly pitched performance — says “that is not the sound.” Sometimes Quasimodo, an earnest and lyrical participant once he starts to roll reads from prepared statements about artistic failure — the types of it, the ways to make it more pleasant (“I believe everything would’ve gone a lot better if we had not rehearsed at my house”), the inevitability of it. Would it have mattered if Beethoven had actually read The Cherry Orchard? Possibly. Nah, not really. “Our collaboration was doomed,” says Quasimodo.

Art about the intricacies of failing to create art: there’s a certain dry origami wit to that sort of rueful, nagging artistic introspection. Is all artistic creation, in a sense, absurd, since it can never arrive fully at the capture of feeling beyond the human capacity to express it? The Hunchback Variations persists with questions like that, and leaves you with them. .

Not every audience will have the patience for it, in truth. But the insights are moving. And so is the portrait of the artist as perpetual quester, imprisoned by a crazy need, in the face of inevitable failure, to “express the inexpressible,” as Beethoven puts it, or “solve the impossible problem,” as Quasimodo says. You keep trying, knowing “that is not the sound.”  

Where do all the failures go? wonders Quasimodo. “Where is the place for the uncreated?” This elliptical set of variations is all about building it. And in its strange way, that’s a fascinating project. 

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