“In The Cherry Orchard, Anton Chekhov’s melancholy comedy about a family of Russian aristocrats who lose their estate, there appears one of the most famous passages in dramatic literature. It’s not a speech or a bit of dialogue but a stage direction: “Suddenly there is a distant sound, as if from the sky: the sound of a breaking string—dying away, sad.” This odd, abstract, almost metaphysical sound effect, symbolizing the imminent end of a way of life, has challenged directors and designers since the play’s 1904 premiere, a few months before Chekhov’s own death from tuberculosis.
“The Hunchback Variations Opera takes its inspiration from that enduring dramaturgical koan, What is the sound of one string breaking? The 75-minute one-act from Theater Oobleck posits an attempt by two well-known musical artists to produce the ultimate aural embodiment of Chekhov’s elusive noise. The setting is an academic conference at which the pair are presenting the result of their labors.
“The effort seems to have been doomed from the start. For one thing, both collaborators are deaf. For another, it’s hard to imagine how they could ever have met. One is Beethoven, the composer, who’s been dead since 1827. The other is Quasimodo, the hunchbacked, 15th-century bell ringer of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris—and a fictional character invented by Victor Hugo in an 1831 novel.
“The setup is quintessential Oobleck—smart, eccentric, unpredictable, thought-provoking, and very funny. Since they arrived in Chicago 23 years ago, the itinerant ensemble—which takes its name from a Dr. Seuss book, Bartholomew and the Oobleck—has specialized in original works based on incongruous cultural cross-references…
“Written by composer Mark Messing and librettist Mickle Maher, and based on a 2001 play by Maher, The Hunchback Variations Opera is just what the title says it is: an opera, albeit a small one. It takes the form of 11 variations on the theme of artistic experimentation and failure, each of which Messing skillfully couches in its own musical style. The score is generally atonal and mildly dissonant, but there are some simple, lovely, melodic passages.
“The singing is beautiful. George Andrew Wolff’s bright tenor contrasts effectively with Larry Adams’s round, chesty bass, and both singers have first-rate diction so the text is always clear. The counterpoint between Wolff’s cheerful, well-groomed Beethoven and Adams’s morose, grotesque Quasimodo is mirrored by the bold give-and-take of pianist Tim Lenihan and cellist Paul Ghica…
“What’s never made clear is how exactly the experiment failed. The omission, of course, is deliberate. Maher and Messing make clear that, in art, failure itself is a failed notion. In the manner of other fringe theaters—and contrary to an increasing emphasis on competition in the performing arts, as the media celebrate the “winners” and “losers” of meaningless talent contests and mindless awards shows—Oobleck renders the concept of failure and success moot. The Hunchback Variations Opera, like The Cherry Orchard, is a meditation on futility. But Hunchback celebrates its characters’ aspirations, prizing process over product and championing the quixotic urge to create and to collaborate in a world that’s inhospitable to both.”
Full review is here — but spoiler alert, if gives away a few of the jokes.
John Dalton writes: “This is a masterful work. Chicagoans should feel greatly privileged to have such artists in our midst. It would be very easy for this show to get overlooked amidst the flood of winter offerings from innumerable theater companies occupying innumerable black boxes about the city. Though I hate to encourage you to ignore any of them, please think about making this show a priority. Theater Oobleck shows are rare, but they are all gemstones; this is no exception. Please see it while you have the chance.”
“Maher and Messing set off to create that impossible sound and in detailing a failed fantastical project they have realized an unmitigated, surprisingly endearing and impossibly successful masterpiece…
“Messing has composed a score for two voices, a piano and a cello that takes on more scope and achieves more musical depth than many works created for a full orchestra and chorus…
“Two geniuses have joined together to realize impossibility and it takes as much genius to bring it to life on stage. George Andrew Wolff is perfectly darling as Beethoven, holding the audience transfixed in his very cleverly subtle camp… Larry Adams is also a gold standard on the musical theater stage… Together with Wolff, Adams makes this impossible combination completely captivating. Their voices are wonderful and their performances are incredible.
“Tim Lenihan’s piano accompaniment is excellent and Paul Ghico interprets Messings unconventional cello compositions with evocative intuition…
“Theater Oobleck’s world premiere is a production the likes of which you cannot imagine. Mark Messing and Mickle Maher’s THEHUNCHBACKVARIATIONSOPERA is a staggering contemplation on the profundity of the unattainable. In peering into the void, they create a seemingly pointless exercise of thought that yields a transformation from the impossible to the sublime. Do not miss this singular masterpiece.”
“Theater Oobleck, easily the most cerebral absurdist theater company (or absurdist cerebral company) in town, presents one of its most unlikely aesthetic and formal pairings of the company’s history… Mickle Maher’s The Hunchback Variations takes as its premise a panel discussion between the Hunchback of Notre Dame and Ludwig van Beethoven…
“And if The Hunchback Variations, which consists of 11 vignettes in which Quasimodo and Beethoven meditate on their failure, wasn’t heady enough, the play… has found a new incarnation as Oobleck’s first opera, opening this week at the Victory Gardens Biograph Theatre. The A.V. Club spoke with playwright Mickle Maher, author of the now-libretto, and composer Mark Messing (of Redmoon and co-founder of Mucca Pazza) about their own artistic collaboration and why opera suddenly seems to be so popular.”
Two friends hatch a plan for a new kind of opera while at a birthday party for a billionaire.
“A billionaire’s birthday bash is not the most likely place for a pair of offbeat artists to have a meeting of creative minds. Yet, in 2008, when real estate magnate and Tribune owner Sam Zell threw himself a party, two of Chicago’s leading fringe creators found themselves mingling.”
The Chicago Reader has listed Our top five theater picks for fall, including Baudelaire in A Box, Episode 3: Death and Other Excitements.
Tony Adler reports:
Buchen and Schoen plan to have all 126 poems boxed and ready by 2017, the sesquicentennial anniversary of Baudelaire’s death. You can gauge their progress this fall when they present cantastoria performances of the six poems that make up the “Death” section of Les Fleurs plus the magnificent “Anywhere Out of This World.”
More If You’ve Got It: 5 Plays from Theater Oobleck will include, in the order they were produced by Oobleck:
Ugly’s First World, by Jeffrey Dorchen Necessity, by Danny Thompson Innocence and Other Vices, by Dave Buchen Letter Purloined, by David Isaacson
and There Is a Happiness That Morning Is, by Mickle Maher.
There will be an introduction by Terri Kapsalis and a forward by Tony Award-winning playwright Greg Kotis.
Other publications available from Oobleck authors are:
Short plays by Dorchen, Isaacson, Maher, and Thompson published in last autumn’s issue of The Louisville Review (available on back order or now through pdf download)
On Monday, July 25th, 2011, Theater Oobleck will be holding a fund-raising event unlike any we’ve held before, to support a work unlike any we’ve ever created in our long, unlikely history:
That’s right, not kidding, an opera.
The libretto’s from The Hunchback Variations by company playwright Mickle Maher (The Strangerer, There Is a Happiness That Morning Is, etc), and the music — being penned even as you read this! — is by Mark Messing, the genius behind the scores of numerous Redmoon Theatre productions, and co-founder of that mad, brilliant marching band, Mucca Pazza.
It will be a strange and hilarious and moving thing, this opera.
And on Monday, July 25th, at 7:30 PM, Mr. Messing will be finished with exactly 67.3% of its composition.
Oobleck will be presenting that 67.3% to a select audience, in a special workshop presentation, at a super secret as yet undisclosed secret presentation hideout.
And you can be a part of that audience, and hear that 67.3%.
All of it sung by people with strange, hilarious, moving and incredible voices.
But here’s the deal:
Mark Messing’s composition—as imaginative, wild, and fun as it is—is enormously demanding, and requires highly trained singers and instrumentalists to pull it off. It’s OPERA, see? To realize it fully, to bring this new, beautiful creation into the world, and to debut it before the end of this year, we require your support. After all these years (23 and counting!) of offering low cost, pay-what-you-can tickets, we need to sell you just one at the downtown fancy-pants, operatic price of $50.00.
With your ticket you’ll be there at the beginning, a beginning that you helped make possible.
There will be wine, there will be cheese. And many fascinating eaters of cheese and drinkers of wine. There will be a discussion with the composer and playwright. There will be an atmosphere traced through with that ineffable sense of Oobleckian wonder. And also cheese.
In December, we presented the first couple “variations” of our work-in-progress: The Hunchback Variations Opera.
Venus Zarris of the Chicago Stage Review was there, and submitted this glowing report:
“This is NOT the stuff of standard theater, MUCHLESS standard opera. It IS the stuff of an absurdist masterpiece. Maher’s writing is cerebral and acerbic. Little to nothing about this script lends itself to music, much less the constructs of opera, but Messing takes the traditional framework of operatic composition and applies a musical quantum physics to perfectly meet The Hunchback Variations somewhere in the midst of the its unreal realm. We heard only a handful of movements to the opera. That was more than enough to know that we were in the audience of something extraordinary.”
“ There Is a Happiness That Morning Is confirms again Theater Oobleck’s reputation as one of the most creative and original troupes in town. FUNNY, WITTY, LITERATE, and PROFOUND… It’s the actors who make it a slam-dunk” -Windy City Times
“one of the year’s most extraordinary offerings that you cannot afford to miss. Genius writing requires genius acting and this spellbinding ensemble realizes the peculiar reality of the story with fascinating and riveting effect.” -Chicago Stage Review
“Find a stranger or more thought-provoking evening and it’s bound to be another Oobleck show.” -WBEZ
“This play explores the depths of romantic involvement in a way that engages and thrills the audience… I expected great things from There Is a Happiness That Morning Is, and I wasn’t disappointed. You won’t be either.” -Gapers Block
“Maher’s ludicrous, heartbreaking There Is a Happiness That Morning Is…is his most powerful play to date.
Three of Chicago’s most intelligent, flexible fringe actors make up the cast… and whether ruminating on 18th-century poetry, academic minutiae, or love’s transience, they make Maher’s intricate, demanding text ring true at nearly every turn.”
“This is Oobleck at their best: an unorthodox premise that oscillates between rapid-fire madcap humor and unexpected enlightenment, with playwright Mickle Maher’s rhymed verse a study in contrast between passion and wit.”
Theater Oobleck makes its Indiana debut, with this one-night-only performance of The Hysterical Alphabet.
The details: The University of Notre Dame (co-sponsored by Gender Studies Program) presents The Hysterical Alphabet, Wednesday, February 16, 2011, 8 pm, at Browning Cinema, DeBartolo Performing Arts Center.
It is free, but is a ticketed event. For tickets phone 574-631-2800 or visit performingarts.nd.edu.
This hit show — a collaboration between author Terri Kapsalis, video-collagist Danny Thompson, and sound artist John Corbett — is currently touring American campuses. So far it has been seen at Bates College, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Clark University, the Rhode Island School of Design, and Emory College.
An appreciation of the performance at Emory is here … to quote:
“In a refreshingly non-didactic, yet pedagogical performance, Theater Oobleck’s The Hysterical Alphabet, is an example of what a 21st-century hybrid of art and scholarship might be.”
In addition, following its Chicago premiere, the work was reviewed in Newcity.
“Theatre Oobleck’s “The Hysterical Alphabet” is a beautifully nuanced mixture of historical treatise, medical discourse and poetic archive, chronicling the sometimes hilarious, often horrifying saga of the “female malady” that is hysteria throughout the centuries. Oobleck has remounted their inspired multimedia presentation at the Chopin Theatre, after premiering last fall in a one-night-only showing at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Terry Kapsalis’s remarkable text, an ABC’s of women and their wily wombs (now available in book form with fantastic drawings by Gina Litherland), is the axis material, but accompanied by Danny Thompson’s stunning video “documentary,” and John Corbett’s gratifying sound design, the sum transforms into something greater than its (private) parts. The three artists enter quietly, without fanfare, and take seats at a long table before a large projection screen. Aided by microphones, a computer/projector, record player and numerous sound folio devises, the performance/lecture takes off, with Kapsalis reading matter-of-factly, almost demurely, her lyrical chronology of ailment, while Thompson frenzy of found and original video images unfurl to the tunes (and crackles, cries and whistles) of Corbett’s manic soundscape. The trio packs an astounding amount of information into little more than an hour’s time—delivering a lesson that is wickedly funny, surprisingly heart-wrenching and not to be missed. (Valerie Jean Johnson)”
You can see an video excerpt of the play here and can order the book version here
Theater Oobleck is engaged in our most ambitious project to date: Baudelaire in a Box, a cantastoria of the entire contents of “Les Fleurs du mal,” to be completed by 2017, the 150th anniversary of Baudelaire’s death.
The first installment was performed at the HideOut in April. The next installment will be performed January 26-30 in Puerto Rico, as part of The Festival Vititiri. And the third installment will be back here in Chicago and at the Banners and Cranks festival in New York City this summer
Here’s the skinny on this weekend: The Festival Vitititiri presents four different nights of puppets, circus, music, cantastoria and wine.
Wednesday January 26th at 8:00, at the Nuyorican Cafe in Old San Juan. Theater Oobleck, Clare Dolan, The Dolly Wagglers, Circo Nacional de Puerto Rico, Y No Había Luz, María de Azúa and Eden Cruz perform.
Friday and Saturday January 28 & 29th, the festival travels to south west coast in Guanica at La Bodega Andreu Solé with Theater Oobleck, Clare Dolan, The Dolly Wagglers, Circo Nacional de Puerto Rico and Y No Había Luz.
And Sunday afternoon at 5 they are back in San Juan at the Abracadabra Café in Santutrce with Theater Oobleck, Clare Dolan, The Dolly Wagglers and Eden Cruz.
Theater Oobleck will be performing three new cantastorias from the Baudelaire in a Box project. Chris Schoen will sing his adaptations in English and Eden Cruz will sing his in Spanish of The Giantess, The Sick Muse and Hymn to Beauty with scrolling artwork by Dave Buchen.
(And what is a cantastoria, you might ask? Cantastoria is the Italian word for a performance form originating in 6th Century India involving the display of representational paintings accompanied by sung narration. It traveled the world and has taken on many forms, from Indian religious Par scrolls to the Indonesian Wayang-Beber, to Persian Parda-dar entertainers, to itinerant European street performers selling broadsides, to the German banklesanger in Weimar cabarets to the present day revival.)