Theatre review: Hunchback – exploring a darker side of love

Edmonton’s Catalyst Theatre opens a can of its theatrical secret sauce in an adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame that explores a much darker side to this love story.

Growing up alone in the Notre Dame Cathedral until the day he lays eyes on the beautiful gypsy Esmeralda, Quasimodo’s only companions are the bells in its tower.  Problem is the Priest, who took in this disfigured child when no one else would, has developed his own unhealthy obsession with Esmeralda.  But Esmeralda has her eyes on someone else entirely and as tragic love stories go we know this one won’t end particularly well for anyone.

This adaptation of the Victor Hugo classic now hangs as part of a triptych that includes Edgar Allen Poe (Nevermore) and Mary Shelley (Frankenstein) in receiving the full-on Catalyst treatment, led by long-time collaborators Jonathan Christenson and Bretta Gerecke.

Much of that Catalyst treatment and the main ingredient in its secret sauce are in the visual spectacle the duo and their team creates and I would challenge anyone to find a better master of the production design than Gerecke herself.  Her gothic esthetic works perfectly here against the backdrop of Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral, with the requisite dark and sometimes erotic costumes and a representation of the cathedral itself that, while seemingly simple in its construction, still manages to capture its grandeur.  As daring as the cast who must reside within Gerecke’s world, there are rarely small measures here, with bold and daring choices pulled from unrivalled imaginations.

But even the most lavish stage spectacle can only carry a show so far, and it is only with the addition of the equally fertile mind of writer/director/composer Christenson and a cast with such talent and fearlessness that Hunchback moves beyond mere candy for the senses.  Christenson, with much help from Gerecke, creates such an immersive world for his actors that as an audience we can’t help but be drawn into it as well.  Sometimes hauntingly beautiful, sometimes with a Broadway sensibility, Christenson’s music provides a wonderful diversity to a show that unabashedly seems to rejoice in being the anti-musical.

Ron Pederson as Quasimodo in the Catalyst Theatre production of Hunchback.  Photo by David Cooper.
Ron Pederson as Quasimodo in the Catalyst Theatre production of Hunchback.  Photo by David Cooper.

While style takes centre stage, there are some solid performances; Scott Walters as Frollo, the Archdeacon of Notre Dame who raises Quasimodo, easily captures his character’s conflicted obsession with the gypsy Esmeralda and summoned visions of Max Schreck in Nosferatu.

Ron Pederson embraces his Quasimodo with such clarity and is equally breathtaking in his emotional connection with Ava Jane Markus’ Esmeralda.  In one of the most memorable scenes of the evening Pederson gives a heart-wrenching description of bells that exist in his life without judgment.

For all its strengths though, at nearly three hours, Hunchback’s sensory onslaught can wear on an audience and towards the end of act one I found my mind wandering to a big black marker and a script.

Darkly grotesque and unwilling to compromise with a happy ending, think of this adaptation of Hunchback as the film Disney would have made if Mickey Mouse had balls.

4 Out of 5 Stars Hunchback

Written and directed by Jonathan Christenson.  A Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company and The Cultch presentation of a Catalyst Theatre production.  On stage at the Vancouver Playhouse through March 10, 2012.  Visit http://www.vancouverplayhouse.com for tickets and information.

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