nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 24, 2008
Redmoon Theater's production of Hunchback, a stage adaptation of Victor Hugo's famous novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame, is disappointingly scattershot. It's being presented at the New Victory Theatre, who specialize in shows for youngsters—but I'm not sure this piece is appropriate for any but the most mature teenagers.
The show follows Hugo's novel reasonably faithfully, though familiarity with it will certainly help you grasp the nuances of the story, especially during the first nearly wordless third of the play. It concerns a young woman named Esmeralda who was taken from her home while she was a baby and raised by gypsies. When the hunchbacked bell ringer at Notre Dame Cathedral, Quasimodo, is tortured by the gypsies (he is trying to capture her for his stepfather, the corrupt bishop Frollo), Esmeralda frees him. Quasimodo's gratitude morphs into love, and when Frollo makes another attempt to win her, Quasimodo thwarts it. The ending of the tale is pure gothic horror, and Redmoon doesn't gloss over it, which is why I wonder if eight-year-olds are really the right target audience for Hunchback.
Conceiver/designer Jim Lasko (who is also Redmoon's artistic director) and director Leslie Buxbaum Danzig struggle throughout the play to find a consistent tone and style. Indeed, the first third of the show feels like a postmodern hodgepodge, with one form of physical theater storytelling following another: aerial acrobatics, puppetry, mask work, and even clown all figure into the thing, almost randomly. And then after about 20 minutes of this mishmash, an actor portraying Victor Hugo marches onto the stage to shut the play down, arguing (quite correctly, I'm afraid) that the essence of Paris in the 15th century has not at all been communicated to the audience. "The Paris I speak of...was first and above everything, home to a legendary filth, a mythic rot, a heart-shriveling stench."
Hugo comes back again and again before Hunchback is over, eventually apparently giving up and joining in the proceedings, notwithstanding the fact that his objections are never addressed. I wondered: why interrupt the (reasonably entertaining) physical theatrics, when the interruption only serves to remind us of the inadequacy of the presentation?
At any rate, while there is one more interesting reveal, stylistically speaking, the show fairly quickly bogs down. Long stretches of the piece are performed in near-darkness, which only exacerbates the monotony that sets in once the company's bag of tricks has been fully exposed.
The puppets, designed by Laura Heit, are the most interesting aspect of the physical production. The environment is defined by a pair of moving metal ladders that, although they are supposed to represent areas within the cathedral, do not engage the imagination. For example, in the scene where Esmeralda rescues Quasimodo, she does so by moving one of the ladder-contraptions from stage right to stage left, so it is next to the one Quasimodo is dangling from. I could never figure out what this action was supposed to represent in the world of the story—it just looked like someone moving a piece of scenery from point a to point b so that she could execute a particular bit of business. Surely there's a more seamless way to incorporate the scenic elements!
The eight performers do fine work, and their versatility as actors, puppeteers, and acrobats provides the production with its main source of interest. But ultimately, they're let down by Lasko and writer Mickle Maher, whose adaptation of the classic novel is too sketchy and unfocused to finally engage the audience in a meaningful way.