By Nina Metz, Chicago Tribune reporter
11:35 AM CST, February 2, 2012
"The Hunchback Variations Opera"
What if Beethoven and Quasimodo teamed up in an obsessive quest to create a stage direction from Chekhov's play "The Cherry Orchard"? It's an out-there premise, but longtime followers of Mickle Maher's work will recognize this conceptual playfulness immediately.
In another life, Maher probably could have had a successful run writing for "Saturday Night Live," but his instincts have pushed him in the kind of experimental direction that led him to team up with musician Mark Messing to transform one of his early hits ("The Hunchback Variations," first produced more than a decade ago) into an opera. Not a musical, but a real-deal, every-lick-of-dialogue-will-be-sung opera.
Why, you might rightly ask? Maher is a longtime member of Theater Oobleck, a company all too happy to embrace his riffs on what it means to grapple with life's big questions and even bigger irritations. What art form captures that sense of grand lunacy better than opera? And yet the experiment, I'm afraid, is not a resounding success.
Devised as a panel discussion, the show features two deaf characters — the celebrated composer and the gnarled hunchback — who have failed miserably in their attempt to create an impossible (if indeed strictly metaphorical) stage direction from "The Cherry Orchard" that calls for a sound effect "coming as if out of the sky, like the sound of a string snapping, slowly and sadly dying away." You want a metaphor that captures what it is to chase something elusive, whether it's perfection in art or a connection to something outside yourself? Maher's plucked one out for you right there.
His collaboration with Messing comes loaded with potential, although fans of Messing's circus punk marching band Mucca Pazza should be advised: There is nothing funky about his spare piano-and-cello score. That's unfortunate, I think. There has always been an academic self-seriousness to Maher's work that he is smart enough to undercut with a brazen wit. The man has a major sense of humor, and George Andrew Wolff (as Beethoven, chipper and wonderfully smug) and Larry Adams (as Quasimodo, full of rumbly bass notes and dissatisfaction) lean into every absurdist nook and cranny Maher provides. Quasimodo mockingly calls his collaborator "The Great Man," whose footsteps he can hear "plopping and slipping in the mud" on the way to the hunchback's hut, silk slippers "soaked in the bog's infection." Soaked in the bog's infection? That's just fantastic writing right there.
But the operatic convention of speaking as singing — Or is it singing as speaking? — has a way of detracting, or at least distracting, from Maher's playful style. The humor as well as the poignancy feel effortful and not quite in on the joke — the way something like "Jerry Springer: The Opera" does. The rhythms seem perpetually off, although Wolff and Adams are terrific performers; they can pull off the vocal nuances and the small, oh-so-delicious facial tics that betray each character's personality.
Ultimately, though, this extra layer of an opera — the opera-ization, if you will — feels like one idea too many for the show to handle.
Through Feb. 19 at the Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave.; tickets are $20 at 773-871-3000 or victorygardens.org
"Are You There, Judy? It's Me, Cancer"
An understated performer whom I have admired for her work with the sketch group GayCo, Judy Fabjance seems an unlikely candidate for a solo show. She never struck me as someone craving to have the spotlight pinned on her — and only her — for an hour or so.
But life-altering events have a way of propelling performers in new directions, and clearly Fabjance has been collecting fodder for this show since she was diagnosed with breast cancer three years ago. This is a tried-and-true genre for the solo form, the I-overcame-a-personal-obstacle show, but Fabjance brings an appealing sweetness to the stage despite some sour feelings that are seemingly still close to the surface. Cancer is a bear, but Fabjance is rather lovely company.
The material could use more structure and punch. The sharpest idea of the night — a game she calls "Lesbian or Cancer?" which includes photos of women with short hair flashed on a screen — is also the most disappointing, because Fabjance and director Angie McMahon aren't quite sure what to do with the premise. There is something there about perceptions and stereotypes worth exploring further.
Too often you're left waiting for Fabjance to follow through with her ideas and land on something comedically meaningful, but even when her sketches fizzle, she is a likable enough performer to keep you invested.
Through Feb. 24 at Donny's Skybox, 1608 N. Wells St. in Piper's Alley; tickets are $13 at 312-337-3992 or secondcity.com
Copyright © 2013 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC