Review: Catalyst Theatre’s Hunchback

Love, depravity, innocence, vengeance, justice, religion and murder are the meaty themes in Catalyst Theatre’s ambitious adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. With the third instalment to the gothic trilogy that included previous Catalyst productions of Nevermore and Frankenstein, writer, director and composer Jonathan Christenson has created an esthetic marvel by marrying the modern style with the classic melodrama where it finds its roots.

The show opens with Bretta Gerecke’s expressionist design — a cathedral made of swooping bows, lit by shafts of stain glass light on black walls. The show’s goth-punk-inspired set and costume design sets itself up for an easy comparison to Tim Burton but it is far less sleek and far more earthy than that. Its roots go a lot further back to the expressionist films of the 1920s, which are a natural match to Hunchback’s sprawling plot and torrid story.

Onto the stage steps a man dressed like a nightmare clown, his face painted white, his torso wrapped in a vinyl corset. In the fashion of the time, Pierre Gringoire is Hugo’s alter-ego and he will act as a narrator for the play. Jeremy Baumung’s Gringoire draws the sprawling threads of plot and complicated relationships together with impish vigour, showing the kind of commitment Edmonton’s theatre community is known for.

Throughout the first act, Scott Walters is terrifying as Claude Frollo, the lust-mad priest who lurches around the shadows on massive platform shoes and a stiff grey hooded robe that’s creepier than anything modern Disney animators could dream up.

The entire cast is a picking of some of Edmonton’s most talented performers put to the test by challenging choreography and lightening-fast costume changes. Because this adaptation doesn’t just focus on the relationship between the Gypsy dancer Esmeralda and the titular Hunchback, most of the cast gets a chance to shine. Molly Flood is particularly excellent as Esmeralda’s wealthy foil, Fleur-de-lis. They are all, of course, aided by some excellent sound design that manages to make the small cast into a powerhouse.

The emotional core of the play appears in the second act when Ron Pederson’s Quasimodo and Ava Jane Markus’ Esmeralda are finally alone together. What Hunchback shares with Hugo’s other famous novel, Les Miserable, that’s been adapted into a musical, is a keen sense of the injustice of the social order. La Esmeralda and Quasimodo are vessels for that injustice, doomed by the frailty of those they should be able to trust — the law, their parents, their church. Their relationship is that of two innocents holding on to each other against encroaching darkness.

The weakness in the second half, however, is that during the opening on Thursday night, when the rest of the cast disappeared, the pace dragged. Pederson didn’t always seem like he’s in control of Quasimodo’s contorted physicality and his accent got a bit hammy even for such an over-the-top production. Pederson was really at his best when he is able to stand up and belt out the songs that express Quasimodo’s inner beauty. Three hours, with intermission, is a difficult stretch but if everything is tight, the audience should barely feel it.

A few of the sound and lighting cues were also a bit late, which can be difficult to hide. Hopefully, once the whole production settles in to its new home it will be as flawless as is required for a play of this level of technical ambition.

As a whole, Catalyst Theatre’s Hunchback is a terrific amount of fun. It’s a tale as lofty as the towers of Notre Dame Cathedral brought to exquisite life by some excellent performances, outstanding visual design and a soundtrack that stays with you well after the curtain has closed.

Vancouver Sun (February 12, 2012)