Friday, December 14, 2007

Masked emotion speaks volumes

by Cory Robertson

Victor Hugo wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame when he was just 29 years old, but the massive, lugubrious novel is as dark and twisted a tale as any gnarled and world-weary old man could have written. Redmoon Theater’s adaptation, a remount of a 2000 production at Steppenwolf’s Upstairs Theatre, does not shy away from that morbidity, but embraces it with full awareness, candor and comedic timing.

The lights stayed up on Tues., Dec. 4 as Redmoon’s players began to pantomime and romp around the stage, adjusting and climbing upon its most central amenities: two towering, cloth-covered ladders suspended from the ceiling. Though entertaining, the motley-clothed players communicated little of substance to the audience as they manipulated the angled ladders.

Then, however, the lights went low and out popped the true driving force of the play: the author, played by Jeremy Sher. As the players let him loose from a wooden box, a slew of indignant words poured forth from the esteemed figure’s mouth. Fully impassioned, he launched into a rant on Hugo’s intentions, on medieval Parisian architecture and on the storytelling method itself. Whereas the players, left to their own devices, created an entertaining, personality-infused display of physical comedy, the author provided just the opposite: overwhelming verbal passion creating a tidal wave of explicitly rendered commentary.

Once the author began to roar, the players quickly slipped into the roles of eager-to-please minions (only to intermittently shut said author away inside his box when deemed appropriate). As the play unfolded (a cooperative effort between author and players), numerous props were put to use: a larger-than-life pop-up book, doppelganger puppets of prominent characters complete with miniature accessories and partial sets, and, early in the show, a diorama of the Parisian streets, eagerly displayed by the players.

With this last-mentioned prop, a gem of a moment arose when a certain player, portrayed by actress Alden Moore, attempted to illustrate the author’s diatribe on the gruesome qualities of medieval Paris -- “Filth! Shit!” – by repeating after him -- “Shit!” -- and smearing dirt across the diorama bridge with a painfully comedic grimace.

When the play’s focus shifted to visually based character stories, the plot became a little bit more convoluted, though it also became more poignant. At these times the author’s quips served only to introduce certain character interactions, such as the moments when Quasimodo’s potent gaze fell upon Esmeralda and the entire stage stood still.

The bloody, earth-based tones of the character masks created a vibrant emotive quality best represented by Esmeralda’s peacefully quizzical expression, which somehow proved effective in every scenario. Her face mask was like the Mona Lisa’s ambiguous smirk and ever-direct gaze – seemingly unique to each moment, though technically unchanging. The mask, made of a heavy, paper-mache-like material, is complemented by a sheath of velvet locks, a combination emblematic of Redmoon’s antiquated yet innovative aesthetic.

Victor Hugo’s plot is complex enough that I won’t bother explaining it here – in fact, some of the intricacies were lost on me, and perhaps lost in Redmoon’s attempt at communicating them to the audience. But the basic emotive qualities of the desperate tale – which involves Quasimodo’s deep love for Esmeralda, Frollo’s cold calculations and the tragic loss of an already cursed existence – were communicated in a stylistically effective approach that is strange, raw and direct. Artistic Director Jim Lasko’s unified and distinct vision, Mickle Maher’s alternately sparse and torrential words and Michael Zerang’s seamless sound design come together, in Hunchback, to create an eerily human work that is worth seeing.

Hunchback runs through Jan. 20 at Redmoon Theater (1463 W. Hubbard, 312/850-8440).

Photo by Sean Williams.