The idea that love is just the most alluring form of torture on hand is antique. Sappho was the first to call Eros “bittersweet.” Actually, she called it a “sweet bitterness,” which puts the emphasis on the negative, the stomach-churning, the obsessive checking of e-mail. She knew that love is pain and, 2,400 years later, Victor Hugo came to the same conclusion in his 1831 novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. The dreadful vagaries of the human heart are not so changeable; but the way we realize those truths changes constantly. And it’s that blending of timeless material and raw new delivery that makes the current musical production of Hunchback, by Catalyst Theatre, so attractive to so many.
The story we know (from the original, or in a mangled form courtesy of Disney). Quasimodo, a hideous hunchback with a heart of gold, lives far from prying eyes in the Notre Dame Cathedral of 15th-century Paris. He, along with every other man in the novel, falls for the dancing Gypsy Esmeralda. But only Quasimodo’s love is pure; good-looking guys move Esmeralda about like a sexual pawn. No good can come from a hideous man loving a beautiful woman (there being no magic fairies on hand). And it spoils nothing to disclose that the pair end up dead and crumbling in a tomb, Quasimodo’s malformed bones curled around her ideal form.
But all this dusty melancholia is brought startlingly to life in Catalyst’s new stage work. Artistic director Jonathan Christenson has a signature style by now – having delivered a gorgeously grotesque adaptation of Frankenstein and also a sweetly sick rumination on the life of Edgar Allan Poe ( Nevermore). Creepy seems to be his thing. For Hunchback he’s marshaling costumes worthy of Edward Gorey and a stage of mammoth, stark loops that call up the architecture of Notre Dame. His story chugs along via twisted songs (composed by Christenson) that wheeze with synthesizers and accordions, or else ratchet up to the epic electronica of an eighties kids’ flick. It’s Gothicism for the YouTube generation.
Our fascination with such heightened grotesquery, though, should call to mind the blind way we fall in love with beauty, too – we’re sensation-driven and Catalyst Theatre has no problem exploiting that here. (You’ll be exploited for three full hours, mind you, and I was shifting in my seat by the end. Surely a good portion of the sung exposition could be hacked away.)
Ron Pederson gives us a strong Quasimodo, with a hump built up arachnid-style and a voice so pure you’d almost think ugly people didn’t have ugly souls. But it’s actually his caretaker, the priest Claude Frollo (Scott Walters) who dominates the narrative. Walters’s Frollo, who gambols about on platform heels and stays wrapped in a charcoal robe, is tortured by his own love for Esmeralda (a minx-like Ava Jane Markus). And his boorish wooing techniques (kidnapping and peeping) don’t lend much subtlety to the character.
Ultimately, then, it’s Christenson’s aesthetic vision that holds this story together. The original French title of Hugo’s novel was Notre-Dame de Paris because it was the architecture that was the real protagonist – the tortured lives within are scripted by the gothic sensibility their cathedral prescribes. Similarly, Christenson’s world is so complete, so undeniable in its visual and musical form that his performers deliver somehow inevitable performances. (All their costumes call up ribs, exoskeletons and corsets, driving home the tyranny of structure.) Similarly, it’s the timeless, unforgiving framework of love that demands a tragic end for Hunchback’s pack of variously crippled lovers.
- Written by Victor Hugo
- Adapted, directed and composed by Jonathan Christenson
- Starring Ron Pederson, Scott Walters and Ava Jane Markus
- At the Vancouver Playhouse in Vancouver
Hunchback runs in Vancouver until March 10.
Special to The Globe and Mail