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preview posterQuasimodo or The Bell Ringer of Our Lady of Paree
Adapted by James Fagan Tait
Boca del Lupo
Under the Burrard St. Bridge
(1st and Fir)
Aug. 10-25
Free at 604-684-2622

Boca del Lupo’s free, outdoor, all-ages, roving spectaculars have become a fixture of Vancouver summers. If you’re quick enough to secure tickets, you can bring the kids, follow the actors and musicians from scene to scene, chuckle at the silliness, admire the cleverness, and gasp at the audacious physical staging. 

The company has played the past four shows on the trails and high among the trees in Stanley Park.  This year they’re under the Burrard Bridge, not as pretty a site.  It’s dusty, chilly, and sometimes noisy from the traffic above.  But it’s evocative, offering a perspective on the city not many of us have experienced. The massive concrete bridge supports stand in nicely for the facades of Note Dame Cathedral, the setting of Victor Hugo’s novel from which James Fagan Tait has created this witty adaptation.

Tait retains the spine of Hugo’s story about the hunchbacked bell-ringer Quasimodo (Jay Dodge), the gypsy girl (Gemma Isaac), the Poet who marries her (Billy Marchenski), the Officer who loves her (Victor Mariano), the Priest who stalks her (Shane Snow), and her mad, long-lost mother (Sarah May Redmond).

Around them swirl the peasants (Dawn Petten, Brian Sutton, Sarah Donald) at the Feast of Fools, where Misrule is the order of the day. Large wooden set pieces—a platform with stocks, a tumbrel wagon—and Reva Quam’s earthy costumes evoke the French Revolutionary era.  And of course characters swing, hang, and swoop from Boca’s signature trapezes and riggings.

Three musicians perform Patrick Pennefather’s clever music, the choral singing enriched by the wonderful voices of Vancouver Opera’s Sheila Christie and Sandra Stringer.

The actors are all strong and nothing is sacred. The Poet rhymes “Jupiter” with “stupider.” Petten admonishes the King of Misrule, “Easy on the props, your highness, this isn’t Bard on the Beach.” Later she’ll draw parallels between gypsy girl’s seeking sanctuary in Notre Dame and political refugees in our own downtown cathedrals.

Memorable moments abound: back-flips from Sutton’s billy-goat boy, Marchenski’s Poet in a physically precise, slow-motion fight, Quasimodo swinging from a rope, ringing a bell (another actor in a huge bell-shaped skirt). And the finale is utterly spectacular as Quasimodo, gypsy girl, and priest climb to the top of the tower/bridge, frighteningly high off the ground.

But there are also long, slow segments where not even the interesting location can hold your interest. To some extent Boca is a victim of its own success.  The crowds are bigger and take longer to move around and settle. Director Sherry Yoon needs to tighten the action and pick up the pace.

Still, this is entrancing, original, and sometimes breathtaking professional theatre in an unusual setting.  And it’s free.

Jerry Wasserman