The New Vic, one of the theater's most unusual ensemble companies, specializes in maximum contact with the audience. The actors mingle with the crowd before the show and during intermission and peddle refreshments on the stage, and the star of the company, Micky O'Donoughue, is not above throwing a net over a female spectator and carrying her off, sometimes for purposes connected with the plot.
A little-known historical fact about Quasimodo, the deformed bellringer of this melodrama, is that his mother was a Philadelphian. During a visit to Paris and its landmark cathedral in the 15th century, she was ravished by a man posing for a gargoyle, and ultimately abandoned her hideous offspring on the cathedral doorstep. Next week Quasimodo's mother will have originated in Stockton and Glassboro, N.J., where the New Vic next will alight, or possibly even Cherry Hill or Ong's Hat.
While the adaptation takes this and other liberties with the Hugo novel, many of its principal characters are intact. O'Donoughue essays both the hunchback and Gringoire, the minstrel from Rouen who has come to "conquer Paris with a smile and a song." Esmerelda the gypsy dancer is on hand, inexplicably smitten with the libidinous Phoebus and unjustly accused of his murder by the vengeful Dom Frollo. And of course Fifi the queen of the thieves, Poussepain, the bibulous captain of the guard, and a large cast played by a company of eight, give or take a half-dozen.
Hugo's grand-guignol ending is averted by introducing a fairy gargoyle who magically makes time run backward until just before the wholesale slaughter, with the characters doing everything in reverse, including the dialogue, and all becoming great pals with one another. Quasimodo, Esmerelda and Gringoire go off into the sunset arm-in-arm, bound for Philadelphia to visit Quasimodo's mother.
There is not much more to say, except that "Hunchback" abounds in double entendres and scatological humor, though much less of it, it seems to me, than in previous New Vic productions; that O'Donoughue remains one of the world's funniest men and maybe the best of the lot in the visual sense; that it is entertaining enough to keep the interest generally high through a performance that exceeds 2 1/2 hours, and that this remarkable company has the rare stage smarts to be serious about its work even while fully engaged in a spoof.
New Vic's brief run here concludes with two-a-day performances today, tomorrow and Saturday, and a Sunday matinee.
THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, OR, BATS IN THE BELFRY
An entertainment based on a novel by Victor Hugo, adapted by Joss Buckley and Micky O'Donoughue and written by Buckley. Directed by Ken Hill, design by Claire Lyth, lighting by Chic Reid, choreography by Imogen Claire, fight direction by Ian McKay.
Dom Frollo - Christopher Barnes
Charlemagne - David Lever
Esmerelda - Nonie Kent
Poussepain - Adam Kimmel
Quasimodo/Gringoire - Micky O'Donoughue
Phoebus - David Solomon
Fifi - Deirdre Strath
Francois - Simon Thomson
Playing at: The Zellerbach Theatre of the Annenberg Center, 3680 Walnut St., through Sunday.