Capital T Theatre has a long history of producing works by Chicago playwright Mickle Maher, such as the (relatively) recent productions of "Song About Himself" and "The Strangerer." These were full-length works, but Maher, like many playwrights, has also produced a body of shorter pieces, two of which director Mark Pickell takes on in Capital T’s newest production, "An Evening of Short Plays by Mickle Maher," playing through Nov. 17 at Hyde Park Theatre.
These two one-act works — "The Hunchback Variations" and "An Apology for the Course and Outcome of Certain Events Delivered by Doctor John Faustus on This His Final Evening" — are united not just by a common playwright and director but by the same two-man cast: Austin theater titans Robert Fisher and Ken Webster.
"The Hunchback Variations" is the first play of the evening and the most directly comedic of the two. It features two famously deaf men — the fictional Quasimodo, from Victor Hugo’s "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (Fisher), and the very real Ludwig von Beethoven (Webster) — hosting a panel on their attempts to re-create an impossible sound effect described by a stage direction in Anton Chekhov’s "The Cherry Orchard." As this encapsulation would indicate, the play is totally absurdist in nature, with the “variations” of the title coming from the continual ending and restarting of the panel.
Fisher is the standout of "The Hunchback Variations," and this is intentional; Beethoven is only an actor in modern street clothes, while Quasimodo is a faithful re-creation of the character from Hugo’s novel. The text invests Quasimodo’s words with far greater sympathy and depth than Beethoven’s self-absorbed vapidity, creating an inherent tension between the two that provides what little conflict there is in the play. "The Hunchback Variations," though, is not about character-based conflict; rather, it’s an ode to attempting the impossible, both in art and in life, and a celebration of the inherent absurdity of such a task that is, nonetheless, worth pursuing.
"Faustus," on the other hand, is entirely Webster’s play. Indeed, Fisher is silent throughout as the brooding, looming demon Mephistopheles, a menacing figure off whom Faustus can bounce his monologue. We learn right away that this is to be Faustus’ final moments on Earth, as the bargain he has made for 24 years of life comes to an end. At first he doesn’t seem scared by his impending journey to hell, but as he recounts the story of his last day alive — and ruminates on various other experiences in his life — we begin to see the cracks beneath the veneer, many of which focus around whether his 24 years with Mephistopheles will have been as meaningful to the demon as they were to him. These sorts of complicated portraits of men barely holding themselves together are where Webster shines brightest as an actor, and his performance is altogether as disarming as it is captivating.
In keeping with the relatively simplistic structure of these deceptively complex plays, Pickell’s production is very straightforward, with almost no set and subtle costuming from Cheryl Painter, evocative lighting from Patrick Anthony and mood-setting sound design from Fisher himself.
As much as this is advertised as an evening of Maher plays, it is just as much an evening with Fisher and Webster, two master craftsmen who clearly delight in exploring the humor, nuance and strangeness of these two very unique plays. It is an intimate experience of pure acting craft and charm, and makes for quite the delightful and thoughtful evening, indeed.