Sunday, March 27th, 2011 at 8:36 pm

The Citadel Theatre: “Hunchback”

Catalyst Theatre is one of those companies that makes one proud to be an Edmontonian. Frankenstein and Nevermore, the previous two creations by Jonathan Christenson and Bretta Gerecke, were nothing short of spectacular, so their third production, commissioned by the Citadel Theatre, was highly anticipated with near-daunting expectations. Hunchback, as described on the Citadel’s website:

This darkly romantic musical, set amid the buttresses and shadows of Notre Dame Cathedral, is a surprising new take on Victor Hugo’s famous story. A tormented priest, a beautiful dancer and the deformed bell ringer Quasimodo, are swept up in a vortex of lust, fear and the desire to control destiny that ultimately destroys them all.

It was also the first Catalyst production to host live musicians, which definitely seemed to fit the grand landscape of the epic story.

The set, while seemingly utilitarian at first glance, was a versatile wonder. With the help of deft lighting design, the steel tripods were transformed from the soaring towers of Notre Dame to the cavernous dungeons underneath. I also particularly liked the scene where Quasimodo introduced his ringing charges to La Esmeralda – the two-dimensional drop-downs meant the focus remained on his verbal adoration of the bells, and of course, on their resonance. The costumes were similarly eye-catching – notably, Quasimodo’s skeletal, wired hump and La Esmeralda’s fall from grace epitomized by the trade of her shimmering tulle skirt for a haunting white gown.

Compared to Frankenstein and Nevermore, Hunchback was not based around a central pillar, and in fact, the titular Quasimodo was actually a secondary figure to La Esmeralda and Claude Frollo. For that reason, I was left wanting to learn more about Frollo’s back story – it seemed that  La Esmeralda was likely a catalyst and not the cause of his surfacing flaws.

The two actors that had me transfixed were Jeremy Bauming, as the tale’s narrator, and Ava Jane Markus, as La Esmeralda. Bauming extolled the rhythms of Christenson’s language as if they were song (his effortless delivery of the passing of a “liquid afternoon”  was magical). Markus was taxed with the weight of being a hub of lust for two men, and the saviour of one. She handled it with grace and beauty.

The musical numbers, while bolstered by the live musicians, weren’t as memorable as those in the other two shows; not one of the songs remained with us after curtain. As a result, Mack and I remained true to our favourite Catalyst productions – he to Nevermore and I to Frankenstein.

Still, because of the highly stylized shows that are Christenson and Gerecke’s trademark, Hunchback is worth seeing. I don’t know when it might run again, but if you missed it, be sure to jump at the next opportunity.

  • Like Mack, I still consider Nevermore to be my favourite Catalyst production (though, to be fair, I didn’t actually see Frankenstein), but I thought that Hunchback was a leap forward in terms of the type of theatre that Catalyst is creating.

    It was much larger in scale—both literally, on a larger stage in a larger theatre, and also in terms of the story it told—and though the songs didn’t stick with me for very long afterward, the overall emotional impact of the show was much stronger for me than that of Nevermore was.

  • Adam – you’re right, it was a much larger scale, but I have to say, I love the Catalyst as a venue, and I appreciate the “intimacy” of it, especially for pieces as emotionally powerful like “Frankenstein”.

    “Hunchback” certainly had a resonance because of its complexity, but even now, years later, I still can’t get the image of the tortured “monster” from “Frankenstein” out of my mind.