The idea of a play within a play, like Under the Table’s The Hunchbacks of Notre Dame, is not a new concept. Neither is the concept of artistic awkwardness in order to make a point. Indeed, we see this latter technique in almost every commercial these days. All this to say that, in order for these elements to work well and seem fresh, they really have to come together in a natural and artistic way. Under the Table’s performance of The Hunchback’s of Notre Dame missed the mark. Instead of being funny and provocative, it ended up just being awkward and tiring, despite the three actors’ abilities, which were considerable.
The Hunchbacks of Notre Dame, created and performed by Matt Chapman, Josh Matthews, and Sarah Petersiel is the story of the Hunchinson Family Players, a theatre troupe of hunchbacked siblings trying to make it big with their misguided adaptation of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. No matter that neither Johann (Matt Chapman) or Hilda (Sarah Petersiel) can remember the author’s name, or that Johann is more focused on selling merchandise than anything else. Poor Paul’s (Josh Matthews) vision, such as it is, keeps getting crumbling until it finally explodes in an epic way.
The problem here is not with the actors, who all carry their roles very well. The issue lies with the messy, scattered writing and directing. The story utterly lacked a purpose. It seemed more like a bad Saturday Night Live skit that accidentally went on for an extra 70 minutes than a well-developed play by professionals. The story was devoid of any sense of purpose. I think one of the most important things any artist can ask themselves is “so what?” You’re writing a story about a play within a play centred around awkward characters? So what? What is its purpose? What are you trying to do with it?
Bits and pieces of song and choreography are thrown together haphazardly and actors “break out” of their roles repeatedly. This is all fine and well if used sparingly, but it isn’t. Every element, great in and of itself, is thrown in the audience’s face to such an extent that there is nothing novel or exciting in the show past the first five minutes. The audience doesn’t need to be hammered at with the characters’ awkwardness. We’re smart enough to get the joke even when the humour is just a bit more subtle, I promise, so give us a chance! Otherwise, you’re treating us like kindergardeners whose attention can’t be kept for more than 10 minutes without resorting to some extreme gimmick. Insulting and, frankly, not that interesting.
The trio did use a moveable scaffolding to great effect, moving it around effortlessly and hanging off it with great ease. It added flow to the performance.
This is the kind of comedy that tires you out when you watch it. It tries to do too much and ends up doing very little indeed.
The Hunchbacks of Notre Dame is at The Gladstone (910 Gladstone Ave) until November 1.
Johan Hunchinson/Quasimodo: Matt Chapman
Paul Leonard Hunchinson/The Priest: Josh Matthews
Hilda Hunchinson/Esmerelda: Sarah Petersiel
Artistic Consultation: Robnlin Foreman
Music: Cliff Rawson
Lights: David Magladry
Costumes: Lydia Forman, Ashley Dunn
Masks: Molly Armstrong