There have been many versions of Victor Hugo's classic melodrama The Hunchback of Notre Dame, several of them captured on film. Most memorable is the 1923 silent film starring "the man of a thousand faces," the legendary Lon Chaney as Quasimodo. The hunchback received a voice in the brilliant 1939 remake starring Charles Laughton, in one of his best performances, opposite Maureen O'Hara as the Gypsy girl Esmeralda. Anthony Quinn and Gina Lollabrigida did a Technicolor version in 1957 (not easily available), and the most recent is a decent effort from 1982, simplified to Hunchback, starring Anthony Hopkins and Lesley-Anne Down.
So why would anyone attempt a stage version in 1995, pitting a new vision of the ancient material against some of the most compelling performances of the modern era? I'm not sure, but that is exactly what the foolhardy Platypus Theatre Troupe has tried in an adaptation by Timothy Reader of Anangke: Hugo's Hunchback at Mesa Arts Center.
A program note assures us that the relevance of the story can be seen in the plight of the homeless who inundate our urban streets, often to the indifference of society and the church. It is true the destitute sellers of The Grapevine provide a contemporary context that might be recognizable in Hugo's early 19th-century Paris. But the novel sheds little insight as to how the finer qualities of the spirit are brutalized by poverty, so while the parallel seems apt, little relationship can be seen between the forces of society and the dire vicissitudes of the plot.
The power of the tale springs, rather, from the same axis of repulsion/attraction that fuels Cyrano de Bergerac, Beauty and the Beast or The Phantom of the Opera.
A sure-fire potboiler of a story, Hugo's Hunchback tells of a misshapen dwarf abandoned as an infant in the alms box of the titular cathedral. He was rescued by a priest and given living quarters in the belfry of the great church, where he earns his keep as the bell ringer. Naturally, this has left him deaf, adding pathos to the situation of the already grotesque loner, who has known little kindness and has never seen the light of love in another's eyes.
The beauty in this beast's life is a dancing girl named Esmeralda, who was stolen from her mother in childhood and raised by Gypsies. When Quasimodo sees her in the street below, he is lured from his tower. The unruly crowd seizes the ugly dwarf, but his torture is alleviated by a drink of water proffered by Esmeralda, an act of kindness that binds his loyalty to her forever.
The intricate plot that then unfolds virtually defines the term "gothic." Esmeralda comes to the aid of a poet named Ren when he is unjustly sentenced to death unless someone agrees to marry him. (And we thought the Simpson trial was bizarre!) Theirs is only a marriage of convenience, however, for the Gypsy girl has fallen for a handsome soldier named Phoebus, whose sunny features so thoroughly dazzle her sense of propriety that she agrees to meet him in an illicit assignation.
Meanwhile, Father Claude, the hunchback's guardian, has an obsessive lust himself for Esmeralda, who is apparently irresistible to all but her husband. The priest arranges the lovers' tryst if he is allowed to watch, then stabs the soldier as the couple are coupling. Esmeralda is charged with the crime and sentenced to hang, but is rescued at the last moment by the dwarf, who carries her off to sanctuary in his bell tower.
Further plot developments include Esmeralda's finding her long-lost mother, the death of Esmeralda by hanging, the death of the priest at the hands of Quasimodo and the death of Quasimodo from a broken heart.
As a title for his adaptation of Hugo's Hunchback, Reader uses the Greek word "anangke," which means "fate" or "doom." Working in evident close collaboration with director John King, Reader has fashioned a script that pretends to be an improvisational street-theatre event, staged by the fictional Brother, Can You Spare a Dime Theatre Troupe. Aspiring to a kind of agit-prop fervor, the troupe enacts the characters and settings of the tale with only cursory reference to the actual period of the piece. Anachronisms are the essence of the technique, rather than intrusions.
The problem is that the story itself is so baroque and far-fetched that without the gauzy lens of time it strains credulity. The twists of the plot are numerous and unlikely, and Reader has obfuscated the overwrought tale with clumsily delirious agitation, trying to pump passion and conviction into a remote and ludicrous saga. So little is believable that potential relevance falls victim to the audience's detachment.
It is stimulating to see the large cast of 18 enthusiastically devote itself (with the ardent fervor seen only in amateurs) to the task of dramatizing this potboiler. The cast members give their all, when rather less would be preferable. No amount of emoting brings the slightest belief to the incredible circumstances of the hunchback and his travails. On the whole, the level of the acting is rather like what one might expect in a grade-school pageant dramatizing the basic food groups.
King's staging is energetic and often inventive, although he has urged his actors to demonstrate their every thought and feeling. This crowd mugs relentlessly. My favorite directorial touch is the use of actors in masks to suggest the haunting presence of the gargoyles that perch about the cathedral at Notre Dame with such pervasive angst.
The physical production is aided by evocative yet simple sets by Mark Tiemeyer, although Randy Levine's lighting often leaves the action in the dark, with the light mysteriously focused elsewhere.
Far worse than King's staging is his heavy-handed performance as the duplicitous priest. He never misses an opportunity to underline his ever-so-apparent subtleties. Quasimodo breaking the priest's neck provides the most satisfying moment in the show.
Jocelyn Nadine Halverson wears a sour little pout of boredom that keeps her from being as alluring as she is meant to be as Esmeralda, nor can she summon the spiritual grace to engage our sympathy. It is difficult to see the sexual magnetism of the handsome Phoebus in the relatively plain Jeffery C. Hawkins, but he plays the rou with a randy horniness that is almost attractive in a redneck sort of way.
Christopher M. Williams is serviceable as the poet/narrator/husband Ren, as are Keith Wick and M. V. Moorhead in supporting roles.
Only James Ward is able to induce empathy in the actor-proof role of Quasimodo. In what is the production's only instance of restraint, Ward plays the title character without a hump, choosing to act the deformity rather than use a prosthetic aid. With his heavy, squatting frame, Ward is able to elicit genuine pathos from the audience, in a part that permits, even demands, theatrical excess. His modest Quasimodo, hiding behind a half-mask, is a welcome relief from the histrionics that surround him.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events happening in the Phoenix art and theater scene.