Sunday, June 25, 2017

BOBDIREX production of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame": Ringing the changes on diversity and acceptance in medieval Paris

However adept the Disney organization has proved over decades of storytelling, sometimes the moral clarity of the result,
Jacob Butler lends overwhelming pathos to the title role.
particularly in the animated, full-length features, can be too glaring. Yet dividing the world into good people and bad people is seductive when we tell stories, as we keep discovering in the "good-guy-with-a-gun" simplifications of today's raging Second Amendment debate.

Adapted for the stage with real people in the roles, as BOBDIREX is now doing in its annual production at Marian University, "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" preserves the broad, heavily outlined representation of the Disney film characters: The bell-ringer, marginalized and mocked because of birth deformities, learns courage; the intrepid "queen" of medieval Paris' despised gypsies who helps nurture his feelings of worth even as she gains his trust by opposing his protector, a corrupt and concupiscent representative of both the law and the church.

These three characters are all sturdily portrayed in the second-night performance I saw Saturday night. Jacob Butler is outstanding as the hunchback Quasimodo, brought up in cathedral isolation and shedding his submissiveness with difficulty to assert his full humanity in song and dramatic stature. Bill Book is his protector and nemesis Frollo, the archdeacon of the Notre Dame cathedral, driven by a need to control that turns sociopathic. Shelbi Berry plays Esmeralda, prize trickster and entertainer of the furtive gypsy population, blending pixieish charm and a ferocious drive toward justice and dignity.
Esmeralda wows the crowd at the Feast of Fools.

Director Bob Harbin seems always to get powerful actor-singers in the main roles. But he is also Indianapolis theater's Cecil B. DeMille, with touches of Robert Altman. He has a history of getting large casts, solidly accompanied, to put across shows with swirling coordination and a degree of commitment that approaches spontaneity in effect, even though it has been carefully prepared. With choral oomph applied to some of the show's music by conductor Trevor Fanning's facility at developing choruses (he's on the faculty at Cathedral High School), the atmosphere of the medieval church flourishes on a plausible fantasy level.

The flexible, idiomatic, to-the-point songs by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz help hold the narrative together. The pit band displayed both heft and subtlety. The production's amplification was a little overpowering in the full-voice ensemble numbers, but otherwise both spoken dialogue and songs for soloists and small groups came through well. With essential assistance from the costumes, the choreography (Stuart Coleman) particularly in the Feast of Fools revelry early in the first act, brims with razzle-dazzle and a well-managed intricacy that suits the ensemble's range of body types.

Clerical errors: Frollo seeks divine help in a dubious cause.
Among those appearing in supporting roles to particularly strong effect was  Keith Potts as Clopin, master of the revels, gypsy honcho, and the story's most prominent narrator. You felt you were always in good story-telling hands with Potts' Clopin leading the way. Logan Moore plays the stalwart army captain Phoebus, who, believably entranced by Esmeralda, is gradually won over to the small, undeterred opposition to Frollo. His tenderness about the wound he had suffered in a second-act fight was inconsistent, however. Heroism, once it clings to a character, seems to rise above all hurts, I guess.

The Gargoyles, those decorative cathedral sculptures of grotesque mien, function according to Disneyan whimsy as prodding friends of Quasimodo, who alone is able to talk with them and see them as animate beings. With adept costuming simulating their stony bodies, these amusing companions at the cathedral's summit received lusty, droll portrayals by Curtis Peters, Matt Rohrer, and April Armstrong-Thomas.

Some of the fantasy elements the story requires work well in this production without elaborate technology: the flash and burst of brief fire indicates that gypsy sorcery has been applied where needed. The staging of (spoiler alert!) Frollo's dispatch off the Notre Dame roof was managed well without advanced gimmickry; on the other hand, Quasimodo's rescue of the condemned Esmeralda was a little too understated and low-key, given the flashiness of the production as the whole — you had to imagine why Quasimodo really needed that bell-rope.

Though the story leans toward simplified problems and solutions, it's enthralling every step of the way. When it comes to emotional nuance, I found the scenes in which Esmeralda and Frollo confront each other electrifying. There are dark sides to both characters (not just the archdeacon) as well as humanity (not just the gypsy). Book and Berry were equal to offering characterizations as rounded  as the script allows. So many of the griefs other people harbor are hidden in our interactions with them; Frollo and Esmeralda come face-to-face with the grief behind each other's bristling facade.

In a Franz Kafka letter I happened to read just before attending "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," he writes: "...if I were to cast myself down before you and weep and tell you [my griefs,] what more would you know about me than you know about hell when someone tells you it is hot and dreadful. For that reason alone we human beings ought to stand before one another as reverently, as reflectively, as lovingly, as we would before the entrance to hell." This arresting sentiment is oddly embodied  in Esmeralda's canniness, compassion and instinct for self-preservation, set against Frollo's studied uprightness (at war with his lust) and mania for control. These qualities crackled in the performances of Berry and Book.

Both Esmeralda and Frollo stand before the hell in the other person, a hell that's more "hot and dreadful" in the archdeacon than in the gypsy. Only one of them can be the salvation of the hunchback, and it has to be the one for whom hell is kept more at bay. Some happy endings are not as clear-cut as Disney storytelling would like them to be. Even so, Quasimodo retains more of a vision of heaven at the end, thanks to the moral imbalance between Esmeralda and Frollo. The positions of all three with respect to one another are superbly realized in this intense, full-hearted production.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]