For children who need to get good and terrified this Halloween (and that’s most of them), it would be hard to do better than “Hunchback.” As if it weren’t enough of a challenge to faithfully adapt Victor Hugo’s sprawling novel “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” Chicago-based Redmoon Theater has given itself the additional difficulty of producing for an audience with a median age of about eight. They acquit themselves beautifully: The show has plenty of kid-friendly spectacle, yes, but it also retains the black, beating heart of Hugo’s nobody-lives-happily-ever-after yarn.
Kids who remember Disney’s loose film adaptation of this same story will probably be surprised by “Hunchback.” Nobody will be making a plush toy of this Quasimodo, or calling him “Quasi.” The character, portrayed alternately by a puppet and a masked actor (Jay Torrence), is as hideous as Hugo imagined him — his face looks like it’s melting, his back is twisted and he shambles across the stage in silence. He’s a not terribly likely hero.
But that was part of Hugo’s point, made perfectly clear by Redmoon: people who look like heroes, like Phoebus (Calvin Dutton), the hunky suitor of heroine Esmeralda (Katie Rose McLaughlin), are frequently disappointing. People like Quasimodo, on the other hand, have the capacity to surprise us.
It’s worth mentioning that Hugo hated the title “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” In French, it’s simply “Notre Dame de Paris,” the name of the cathedral around which all the action takes place — almost an actual character.
Thus, designer and Redmoon a.d. Jim Lasko dramatizes Notre Dame itself with two towers of scaffolding. Whenever Hugo sets his characters chasing one another around the cathedral (which is pretty often), stagehands wheel the towers around on castors, and the actors flip jointed ladders on the sides to form bridges, ramps and precipices from which Quasimodo and his beloved Esmeralda can teeter, leap and plummet.
These sequences are a master class in theatrical movement by creators who refuse to be cowed by TV or film. During “Hunchback,” Redmoon shrugs off comparison to the animated chases, or even Lon Chaney pursuing Patsy Ruth Miller in the 1923 silent version, from which “Hunchback” takes many of its other cues.
Much of the show is silent, the action described only by a large scroll of supertitles that turns once every 10 minutes or so, revealing chapter headings mostly taken from the book. Since the settings change so rapidly from moment to moment, Redmoon has a very deep bag of tricks: one moment, Esmeralda is a live actor in a mask; the next, she’s a marionette sitting unawares as villain Claude Frollo (Samuel Taylor) creeps up behind her as a shadow puppet.
This is about the point at which Victor Hugo (Jeremy Sher) just can’t take it anymore. The venerable author bursts onto the scene with the only fully-scripted part in the play (Mickle Maher, writer of the wonderfully goofy “The Strangerer ,” penned his dialogue), angrily castigating the performers for being clever when they should be providing the audience with the “heart-shriveling stench” of 1482 Paris.
Hugo’s presence, at first a little annoying, makes all the difference to this play. Instead of remaining a bunch of cool-looking coups de theatres loosely organized around the novel, the author’s storytelling turns the show into a rich realization of the book’s themes. With Hugo to explain the significance of the Place de Greve, where Esmeralda’s lost mother lives, we get the same urgency described in the novel, when various plot threads come tantalizingly close to one another. Here, we simply see Esmeralda brush against the box the actors have been using for her mother’s scenes, and walk away unawares.
Hugo and the actors decide to cooperate, and together they perform the best sequence in the play: the biography of Frollo. Dramatized by puppets on a huge pop-up book, the performers goof around while Hugo narrates the tragedy of “a man who’s fallen out of love.” When love fails Frollo, he becomes “sick from the heart up, through the skin.”
However complex this story is, Redmoon makes it abundantly clear to its young audience, and its resolution is genuinely moving no matter how old you are. At the play’s climax, just as goodness is about to briefly win out, Hugo interrupts again to explain the setting, and then tells the performers to go ahead. “Can we see that, please?” he asks. “The triumph of love?”
Astonshingly, we can.