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'Pluck' in Bethesda and 'Hunchback' at the Harman Center

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Photo by Sean Williams. Calvin Dutton as Phoebus and Katie Rose McLaughlin as Esmerelda.

Photo by Sean Williams. Calvin Dutton as Phoebus and Katie Rose McLaughlin as Esmerelda.

Published on: Wednesday, February 18, 2009

By David Cannon

Just when you think you know what to expect, two established venues surprise you. You expect to see classic writers mounted at the Shakespeare Theater, so what’s that puppet show doing at the Harman Center? You expect off-Broadway shows mounted at the Bethesda Theater, so why is there a classical music performance currently running there?

Admittedly this is a surprisingly literary puppet show, and that classical music performance is played for laughs at Bethesda. In the process, these off the beaten track shows can introduce young audiences to great literature while knocking that stuffed shirt atmosphere out of classical music.

For their second annual Young and Family Series, the Shakespeare Theater invited Redmoon Theater Company from Chicago for their unique take of Victor Hugo’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame.” Redmoon uses all sorts of techniques, including standard puppets, to bring to life an adaptation that is remarkably faithful to Hugo’s sprawling novel. In other words, do not expect happy endings. 

There are puppets of various shapes and sizes, plus costumes and masks for the actors. The set is  boxes, ladders, and pulleys that are used in mostly wordless scenes showing Quasimodo ringing the church bells or rescuing the gypsy girl Esmerelda from the clutches of the obsessed Claude Frollo. Boxes open up to become dioramas of Paris and the ultimate pop-up book is used to tell Frollo’s history, including the often forgotten character of Jehan.

The subject matter is for older children as it deals with more mature themes of obsessive love and injustice. Jeremy Sher is great fun as the constantly interrupting author, giving us background such as how grimy Medieval Paris really was. The Court of Miracles is missing here, and what is actually going on with that strange female recluse is hard to follow. But the cast is strong and director Leslie Buxbaum Danzig keeps it moving and focused. All in all this is a strong and faithful adaptation of a tricky novel–much better than the misguided Disney cartoon.

Meanwhile at the Bethesda Theater is “Pluck: The Titanic Show,” which features a classical music group that won over the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Pluck wants to honor the musicians who played on the doomed ship, but since we know so little about them, Pluck made it up.

It’s an excuse to mix chamber music with vaudeville. It’s the silly joy of watching three performers play chamber music while cheating at cards or sending a telegraph message. It masks the fact these have to be very good musicians to keep playing beautiful music even while trying to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic with their feet. Literally.

As much Marx Brothers as Mozart, Pluck mixes old time slapstick with good music. They play everything from La Traviata to a hilarious version of Leroy Anderson’s “The Typewriter” and prove to have very decent voices for a Peanut Vendor’s song. As the iceberg approaches, the theme from “Jaws” pops up.  There are running gags about passengers, an attempt to play the trombone, even a Snidley Whiplash silent movie starring–ou guessed it - the three members of Pluck in all the roles. 

If you think you cannot laugh while someone plays the Bach Cello Suite #1, Pluck will soon knock that silly notion out of your head. Plus this tale has a happy ending–after all, it’s a tale about the Titanic. What could possibly happen?

Hunchback is a reminder of the many types of shows at the Harman Center for the Arts.  The plays are the centerpiece – The Dog in the Manger by Lope de Vega is currently playing at the Lansburgh.  Other events include the Bowen McCauley Dance Company the weekend of Feb. 21, a free reading of “Inherit the Wind” on March 2, and the Post Classical Ensemble on April 22.

For more information, call 202-547-1122 or go online to

Meanwhile, Pluck: the Titanic Show continues at the Bethesda Theater through March 1.  For more information, call 301-657-7827 or go online to

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