By Moises Kauffman
Produced by Arena Stage
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
33 Variations. Don’t be put off by the rather inaccessible title. What does it mean? Well, literally, they are the number of riffs or versions of a musical theme, composed by Beethoven no less… Or metaphorically, they could represent variations of the ever changing passages of our lives. Have your eyes started to glaze over yet? I urge you to get past the title, get over the whole historical Beethoven thing, and trust the undeniable genius of Moises Kaufman, writer of the Laramie Project and Gross Indecency; The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, director of I Am My Own Wife. Then, prepare for the theatrical masterwork currently showing at Arena Stage, the likes of which will be hard to match for a long time.
The magic of 33 Variations is the amazing juxtaposition of very distinct story lines that interweave point/counterpoint with each other, synchronized by a passionate obsession with music and love. Each story is strong enough to stand alone in solo performance. A music historian devotes her life to researching the creation of a series of musical interludes. A daughter struggles to come to grips with her mother’s debilitating illness. Beethoven’s creative process in creating these variations is revealed along with his reactions to his impending deafness. All this while proving the sustaining, keeping power of friendship and love. It’s a lot. But Kaufman is a masterwork himself and he, as writer and director, along with the most astounding ensemble imaginable (cast in New York) brings what could be a raucous cacophony into beautiful harmony, a perfect pitch world premiere. The ebb and flow of the characters in their scenes, the similarity of the themes they’re dealing with, how Kaufman moves them across the stage to represent shifts in time and space occur naturally and comfortably, even fugue-like, if that can be imagined. An added bonus is the use of an award-winning pianist, Diane Walsh downstage, playing the pieces with impeccable panache and skill. It’s all really quite amazing.
Okay, back to the basic story line — the musicologist, Dr. Katherine Brandt (Mary Beth Peil) is obsessed with unlocking the mysteries of why Beethoven produced 33 variations of a simple waltz, composed by Diabeli. She tracked down that it was composed over a three year period just before his final composition of the famous Ninth Symphony during which time he was slowly becoming deaf. Although she has a willful disregard for any signs of her own illness from a rare ALS type disease, her daughter Clara (Laura Odeh), is very concerned and interjects herself into her mother’s life, and even shows up unexpected (and unwanted) at her doorstep in Bonn where the professor is examining original music sketches and manuscripts to research her paper. Kaufman layers the piece with multiple characters who help tell the story of compassion and devotion– Mike (Greg Keller), as the devoted love interest, who enters as a humble, nerdy nurse “who has seen the mother naked,” Beethoven’s devoted servant/biographer Anton Schindler (Erik Steele) and the research librarian Dr. Gertie Ladenborger (Susan Kellermann) who shares the professor’s loving adoration for Beethoven’s work, his process, his artistic being. In fact, it is through this tucked away researcher that Kaufman relays his powerful messages of friendship and affection. Gertie’s transition from standoffish librarian trusted ally, all while being resisted and pushed away, parallels Schindler’s ferocious protection of his beloved and cantankerous “master” Beethoven.
The two anchors of the production are the mother, Kathering Brandt, Dr. Brandt, and Beethoven-the actors playing these characters must have hefty stage presence to handle the intense emotional and physical journeys that they both endure. Veteran actors Peil and Malcolm are superbly cast and are both more than up to the task. In one passage, there is a play on the word “transfiguration” where the characters banter about aspects of change, versus something that just spontaneously comes from nothing. Peil as Katherine shows the most visible signs of deterioration from the well-heeled, independent, impeccably dressed and sharp stepping, acerbic professor to a somewhat disheveled appearance, shuffled paced and slurring of words as the disease progresses. Graeme Malcolm as Beethoven also begins a downward spiral into unkept territory from his illness and from being consumed with his work. Malcolm portrays him with a physically commanding stance and presence and a boorish disregard for anything but his music. Both artists attack their tasks with unshakable zeal and work despite significant physical pain with an intensity of other worldly accountability. They are absolutely unstoppable.
The play illuminates the depth and intensity of artistic expressions, in this case, a fixation on a musical theme through the eyes of the artist as well as his devotee over 150 years after his death. Kaufman’s writing and scene development relay the piercing sense of urgency and the ferocious struggle to beat the clock, to produce in the face of impending deafness and death. Kaufman is also master of refracting key theatrical themes to fit the characters perfectly. At the end of Act I, he has three sets of couples arranged on stage repeating each other’s words, sometimes in unison, expressing their individual yearnings to support their respective loved ones. It’s an enormously creative feat, heartbreakingly real, and it works. The play is filled with such magical moments, whether in analyzing passages of music, seeing reproductions of Beethoven’s own music renderings projected on the versatile panels on stage, listening to the beautifully crafted variations, or seeing how Kaufman pulls everything poignantly together at the end for an unforgettable finale. It’s a powerful ending for an absolutely brilliant production.
Kaufman’s creative process probably merits its own play – he’s apparently a master of allowing the story to unfold through improvisation. An artistic assistant, Mike Nickerson, an MFA student from the UK, shares in his blog that the rehearsal process is likened to Michelangelo excavating his fully formed David from the slab of marble. Kaufman would run the actors through “moment work, a series of improvised scenes and snippets that create actor-driven narrative moments” to help discover their voices and style. What results are endearingly original and fresh passages from everyday life. In one humorous scene, several characters inch along in single file downstage carrying lunch trays, sounding very impromptu, talking about the healing powers of sexuality – in a lunch line. It’s hysterical.
There are writers, and there are directors. To witness this original work, on its way to being a masterpiece, created and developed by one of the most brilliant theatrical minds in the biz, is an opportunity that mustn’t be missed.
With 33 Variations, Arena has returned to its historical roots of nurturing new, innovative, exciting, pushing-the-envelope kind of work, as it will do for the upcoming world premiere of the long awaited Women of Brewster Place. World premieres require a stepping out on faith kind of fortitude. Thankfully, Arena still has that kind of strength in reserve. What a powerhouse of a season awaits us.
33 Variations is now playing at Arena Stage, 1101 6th Street (6th and Maine, SW) through September 30th. Running time is approximately 2 hours, 20 minutes. Showtimes are Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday 7:30 pm; Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8pm; Saturday-Sunday matinees 2pm. For additional information, call 202-488-3300 or their website.