Hunchback at New Vic


I’m horribly late in posting this because I was out of town all last week, so let me cut to the chase: I wish I knew more kids in NYC so I could take them to see this show.  Hunchback, created by Chicago’s Redmoon Theater and playing now at the New Vic in Times Square, accomplishes something rarely seen in theater recommended for children – it adds imagination and complexity to a familiar story without losing the emotional power of the myth itself.

The architects of this story, conceived by Jim Lasko and directed by Leslie Buxbaum Danzig of 500 Clown, are the Artizoids, a group of mischievious tinkerers who bring this world to life. What seems at first glance like two scaffolding towers dotted with ladders and a line of drab wooden boxes become, in the hands of the Artizoids and others, a freewheeling physical showcase for acrobatics and mime in actors and puppets of all sizes. The world of Paris unbuilds and rebuilds, ladders swing, actors leap, puppets replace masks replace narration replaces mime…. in less experienced hands, this show would induce schizophrenia. But Redmoon specializes in combining physical performance with mask and puppetry to create magic, and they have certainly done it here.

Quasimodo, Esmeralda, and Frollo become at once more personal and more mythic as scope and size keep changing onstage. Danzig pulls us in close for the awkwardness of an unexpected romantic moment, then pushes us back with a ghastly giant puppet.  Quasimodo (Jay Torrence) dangles from the edge of a second-story ladder, while Esmerelda (Katie Rose McLaughlin) escapes her captors by swinging onto a giant horse steered by an Artizoid. The fun of building a story enhances the emotional highs and lows of the story itself in new and sometimes unsettling ways. Keep an eye out for the moment when you realize that the run-of-the-mill audience participation you have cheerfully given to the actors’ demand now makes you a bully.

This show is nimble and twisty, but not light. The stage feels washed in greys, the chapter titles running across the top of the stage take forever for the Artizoids to rotate with a hand crank, and the little surprises, like ghosts for puppets who have just died, are weirdly delightful. Victor Hugo appears mid-story, spitting fury at the actors and audience who presume to recreate his story with cutesy puppetry. His Paris, he says, Paris of the 15th century, is grandeur mixed with filth, majestic architecture looming over pestilent streets. The frames of mimes and books and stages cannot capture it.  But the story presses on, and Hugo is drawn into its tenderness with us. Beautiful, spellbinding images unfold.

I particularly liked the emphasis on showing the magic of the storytelling to the young audience without pandering to them, and so did the audience. Every time the Artizoids pulled something new from the wooden boxes, I heard tiny giggles. But when Quasimodo faced inevitable tragedy in the cathedral (and my hat is off to composer/sound designer Michael Zerang for filling the theater with the just-audible stillness of a holy building made of stone), no one in the house made a peep.

Only runs until Nov 9. Take your kids. Take other people’s kids. Hang around the lower lobby afterward so they can see the incredible puppets up close, and watch them think about storytelling.

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