Nicholas Debeaubien's The Hunchback of Notre Dame | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Nicholas Debeaubien's The Hunchback of Notre Dame

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Nicholas Debeaubien's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Defiant Theatre, at A Red Orchid Theatre. This take on directorial hubris, by John Kohler, Larry Larson, Levi Lee, and Rebecca Wackler, springs from a terrific play-within-a-play conceit. Would-be auteur Nicholas DeBeaubien, determined to put his agitprop stamp on Victor Hugo's classic, adopts one ill-advised strategy after another, from expressionism to sci-fi to sports drama. Meanwhile his production disintegrates.

Jim Slonina's loose, casual direction is a smart choice for the ludicrous material. And the bare-bones sets, props, and costumes not only nicely echo DeBeaubien's heavy-handed shoestring aesthetic but represent a welcome break from the company's trademark high-octane style (there's hardly even any combat!). Specific self-parody is also afoot: standard theater in-jokes abound, but given Defiant's "daring" ethos, it's significant that DeBeaubien is played by the company's own muckraking playwright Christopher Johnson (Dope).

In scenes from the subplay, the actors' deadpan work yields plenty of laughs. The backstage buffoonery is less successful, thanks in part to weaker writing. Two performers nevertheless manage a shade of realistic contrast: BF Helman and standout Will Schutz, whose portrayal suggests Quasimodo as possessed by Buddy Hackett. But Johnson's off- and onstage DeBeaubiens are indistinguishably cartoonish, and Lisa Rothschiller, though technically masterful, is first too lightweight, then suddenly estimable as actress Laura Britton Jenks. Better modulation by both would make this entertainment more incisive--and funnier to boot.

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