- Written and Directed by Moisés Kaufman
- Produced by La Jolla Playhouse, La Jolla, CA
- Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
The world premiere of 33 Variations at Arena Stage last year intrigued me so much that I followed it to its West Coast debut at La Jolla Playhouse to see how an original production stands on new legs with a different cast and crew, discover first hand what was different and changed, and compare the results. Known for his fluid improvisional techniques, Moisés Kaufman, ably assisted by Arena dramaturg Mark Bly, would have a blank slate on which to craft new passages and moments based on their experience with the Arena production. So once again, I was there, enjoying the fruition of the creative process on another exciting opening night for 33 Variations.
The story is about a brilliant musicologist who is fascinated by Ludwig von Beethoven’s seeming fixation on creating different “variations” or musical patterns based on a rather trivial waltz. Despite debilitating health, Dr. Katherine Brandt (Jayne Atkinson) travels to Bonn, Germany to examine his music notebooks to understand his thought processes and musical decisions. Her tenderness in gently examining the pages wearing the required white gloves contrasts with her contrary and rather gruff approach to her daughter, with whom she has a testy relationship. Kaufman introduces themes, messages and scenes about mother/daughter interactions, passionate artistic pursuits, love and friendship, and ultimately, effects of illness, incapacitation and death. He weaves these scenes allowing fascinating interplay and connection of the messages in intricate zig-zag patterns that enter and exit rather like a musical fugue.
The play also slices historical moments into the present when the modern scenes co-mingle with Beethoven’s world of obsessive composition, quest for perfection, and his own impending debilitation and deafness. With such a compelling and provocative construct, along with the gorgeous passages played right there on stage, 33 Variations provided more than enough material for a revisit.
The production was beautifully mounted with a set relaying the sense of stacks and archives of music. The visual projections are particularly important for this work where words, musical notations and messages are projected directly on the set-in this case, even down to an image of a horse galloping briefly along the makeshift screen announcing a guest’s arrival. Everything was expertly done by the original design team Derek McLane (sets), David Lander (lighting), Janice Pytel (costumes). Diane Walsh, concert pianist extraordinaire, remained from the original production, as did Susan Kellermann, who played the carefully nuanced librarian friend Gertie, and Laura Odeh was precious as the daughter, Clara. Ryan King was quite effective relaying the difficult and awkward moments dealing with the professor’s increasing debilitation as both her health care provider and Clara’s committed love interest. The two ensemble players who supported Beethoven, Erik Steele as his trusted assistant Anton Schindler, and Don Amendolia as the composer/music producer Anton Diabelli, were also from the original and bring a solid and heartfelt approach to their delivery.
Admittedly, the original Katherine and the Maestro Beethoven were a tough act to follow. Still, Atkinson has a somewhat muted approach to her scenes and neither she nor Zach Grenier as the Maestro, though quite commendable, was able to relay the fire in the belly intensity of the original production. The final musical scenes that brought me to tears at the Kreeger did not have the same effect out west. Atkinson is not the accomplished operatic soprano that Mary Beth Piel was, and so the enchanting requiem number “Kyrie” where they all join in, fugue like, is not as achingly beautiful.
I was extremely interested in how this production would handle the most controversial aspect of the piece, or at least the one which prompted the most commentary for D.C. Theatre Scene – the final minuet. As originally staged, Gertie starts alone and we don’t even know what she’s doing at first. By the time the others join in one by one in solitude and camaraderie, how could there be a dry eye in the house? In contrast, the choreographer at La Jolla, Daniel Pelzig placed everyone in position and they all just started the piece together. It became more of a dance, rather than a reflection of community and loving connection. It was fascinating to see the different effect.
Commenting on the creative process, Kaufman notes that “…sometimes in our pursuit for knowledge, our investigation of the past can provide us with very useful tools to deal with our daily life.” 33 Variations certainly contributed to my own explorations of artistic pursuits and seeking meaning in one’s life work, and I look forward to additional opportunities to watch the piece evolve. The American Theatre Critics Association bestowed its award for best new American play which has yet to be produced in New York. There are hints that a New York premiere might be in the works and won’t be far behind. If you missed it at Arena, or even if you caught it, you won’t regret packing your bags to catch a revisit. I know I’ll be there.
- Running Time: 2:20 with one intermission
- When: Thru May 4th Tues – Saturday at 8, Saturday and Sunday matinees
- Where: La Jolla Playhouse in La Jolla, Californina
- Call: 858-550-1010 or consult the website.