33 VARIATIONSBy Moisés Kaufman
MainStage Irving-Las Colinas
Director – Jill Stephens
Scenic Designer – Dane Tuttle
Props Design – JoAnne Hull
Lighting Designer – Scott Davis
Sound Design – Jeff Mizener
Costume Design – Michael A. Robinson
Stage Manager – Tom Ortiz
Dr. Katherine Brandt – Dana Harrison
Clara Brandt – Rhonda Durant
Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger – Nina Wright
Ludwig Van Beethoven – Rodney Dunn
Anton Schindler – Clayton Cunningham
Anton Diabelli – Michael Speck
Mike Clark – Fernando Hernández
Pianist – Miyoun Jang
Reviewed Performance: 1/16/2016
Reviewed by Charlie Bowles, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Written by Moisés Kaufman, this is a study of true events in musical history overlaid with a fictional story in the current time. Dr. Katherine Brandt is a musicologist who stumbles into an absorptive study of Ludwig Van Beethoven, specifically why, in the waning years of his life and hearing disability became obsessed with a petty competition to write variations on a seemingly amateur theme written by a lesser known composer, Anton Diabelli. Diabelli proffered the challenge to fifty famous composers to write one variation on his waltz. Beethoven wrote thirty-three variations at a time when he was losing his hearing and his mind, due to a common condition called tinnitus. The variations have been called by some authorities "the greatest set of variations ever written," "the greatest of all piano works," and "a microcosm of Beethoven's art."
Dr. Katherine Brandt follows this story to Germany to find sources on Beethoven at a time when she begins to suffer from ALS, or as it also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Her obsession ignores the serious consequences of her own personal medical condition as much as Beethoven ignored his own ailment. And so the paths of these two people intersect, albeit it with 200 years between them.
I first saw 33 Variations at Theatre 3 a few years ago and thought it was brilliantly staged and directed by Jac Alder. Jill Stephens directed this production at ICT with a different structure and design, and with some trepidation I was worried about comparing the two productions, in the end I discovered more nuances in the story through Ms. Stephens’ vision.
One of the things that engages the audience in this play is that the thirty-three variations Beethoven composed between 1819 and 1823 are actually played throughout the story, live on-stage, by a concert pianist. For this production the artistry fell to the immensely talented, Miyoun Jang. There are artists who specialize in mastering styles of the great composers and Jang seems to be especially adept at Beethoven’s complex nuances within seemingly simple musical phrases. If you came to the theater to listen to her interpretation of this "greatest of all piano works," it would be a night of pleasure by itself. But her interdictions and overlays within the scenes, especially as Brandt listens to and imagines the genius and Beethoven “directs” Jang to play was just magical.
Katherine Brandt is portrayed by Dana Harrison. This is a complex role that requires a balance within the character of academic curiosity that spirals into an obsession at the same time her ALS become visible and spirals out of control. One of the things I was impressed with in the Theater 3 production was how Brandt, played there by Sharon Garrison, showed the progressive effects of ALS with sensitivity for the debilitating disease and clarity for what it meant to the story. In this Irving production Harrison showed those physical effects with equal power and, through this visible action, we see the time-ticking effect on Brandt’s physical ability to work. This provides a clue to how obsession evolves and in some ways answers the question about Beethoven’s obsession. Katherine Brandt is a lecturer who delivers the historical story of Beethoven in a continuing monologue even as she lives her life through the story. Harrison made these transitions between her monologues and her stage life smoothly and comfortably, so we saw her living out the story at the same time she narrated it. Harrison is a strong actress and she provided a sequential worsening of the ALS by varying postures and gestures in one hand, then in both, and eventually throughout her body. But she imagined the driving force of Katherine Brandt to uncover the answer to that question about Beethoven’s obsession with the variations and we saw in Harrison a gradual urgency to race against her own inevitable outcome.
Rodney Dunn portrays the world famous composer, Ludwig Van Beethoven. In the beginning, Dunn created a man with the eccentricities we expect from great genius and the character seemed a bit childish and annoying, much like really eccentric people in our own time. In time, however, we see Dunn reaching deeper nuances with these outbursts to reveal a challenge, and often a maddening fervor, trying to find the perfect expression in his experimental music. Dunn was a look-alike to Beethoven in some respects, with wild hair and thick German accent, but his physical stature was magnified as he gave Beethoven the wild physical outbursts to play with, like finely tuned musical phrases. I imagined Dunn finding parallels between Beethoven’s and his own search for artistic expression, and their results were the same. He was simply a joy to watch in those moments when we saw him soaring as he directed Miyoun Jang in the creation of a final variation, it’s as if these two had a conversation across the centuries. And when Brandt joins this conversation while reading the sketches (musical worksheets) and hearing the composition in her head, the stage was filled with passion and excitement that spilled out into the audience.
Two Anton’s played the other historical characters. Anton Schindler, played by Clayton Cunningham, was Beethoven’s caretaker, personal secretary and first biographer. It’s his notes that provided initial explanations into Beethoven’s thoughts about the variations. Cunningham created a credible German accent and played Schindler like a frustrated parent trying to protect the Master at the same time he was dealing with childish outbursts and eccentric demands. Through Schindler’s interactions with Beethoven, Cunningham provides some of the important personal backstory on Beethoven and his relationship with Diabelli.
Anton Diabelli was an equally eccentric character, a small-time composer and music publisher. Michael Speck created this funny character with a strong Italian accent and the flair of a haughty carnival barker. It was Diabelli who wrote his simple waltz and then challenged fifty famous composers to write one variation on that waltz. In time Diabelli had to learn to deal with Beethoven’s obsession as he took the simple challenge and turned it into a five-year ordeal. And here we got to see Speck in true comedic form as he reacted to the demands and pleadings of Beethoven and Schindler in unexpected outlandish ways. We saw Speck create an arc from the first moments when he was hopeful and poor to a man who had become famous and wealthy on Beethoven’s music. By the end he had a great love for Beethoven.
This story has another theme that comes through three character couples. Beethoven and his helper, Schindler, show one view of a caretaker affected by the obsession and drive of the other. In Brandt’s case, she connects with a stern German caretaker in the Bonn Museum who is duty-bound to protect Beethoven’s papers. Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger was played by Nina Wright. Again a strong German accent, a strong vertical countenance, and a stern attitude towards Katherine Brandt made Wright a foil for the casual and haphazard Brandt. Yet the two become great friends as the presence of ALS is revealed and Gertie realizes Brandt’s urgent passion. Wright softened her stance and German stoicism to become a helper, caretaker, and real friend to Brandt.
The other couple included Clara Brandt, Katherine’s grown daughter, and Mike Clark, the male nurse who cared for Katherine and eventually became Clara’s boyfriend. Clara Brandt was played by Rhonda Durant. In reality, the whole story of 33 Variations is about the failing relationship between a mother and daughter and their discovery of each other through the disease and obsession. In typical form we saw Durant in the beginning as the obstinate, daughter trying to find her way in the world, and then as the protector of her mother’s health, and finally as a dedicated caretaker. Anyone who has been a caretaker of someone ill, or perhaps with elder moms and dads, will identify this struggle immediately. I have and I saw through Durant’s portrayal of Clara a lot of the frustration, anguish and struggle with being protective without being intrusive and controlling. She showed us a young woman who first tried to reason with Katherine, then tried to rule her, and finally had to give in to her, in many ways giving up her own life to do so. This was a sensitive and accurate portrayal.
Mike Clark was both a helper to Katherine, as he provided the scientific knowledge in the story about the progress of ALS, and a helper to Clara, as she struggled with her mother. Mike was played here by Fernando Hernández as a pretty straight-forward, no-nonsense nurse who knows ALS well, and then as a young guy smitten by Clara. Hernández showed two sides of Mike, the strong, self-assured medical professional and the young suitor who can’t say the right things and doesn’t know how to act around his lady. I especially liked a scene when Clara and Mike go to a classical concert and we see an awkward love sequence between the two played out by each in their own minds. This was really funny and both Durant and Hernández played this comic moment with great timing and archetypal timidity.
The stage design for 33 Variations was pretty stark. A metallic assembled platform on one side, a set of wooden platforms on the other, together created the main acting areas with room in between for interactive actions. It seemed the metallic forms signified modern times and the wooden side signified Beethoven’s time. Dane Tuttle designed this set against a very large backdrop which displayed colors, like a scrim on which scenes might be projected. They were not.
Scott Davis provided lighting for the different platforms and lit them alternately as action jumped back and forth. The backdrop displayed a set of large, solid, pastel colors which provided mood lighting, but the sheet was a bit distracting as I began to see patterns in the changes and wondered about which color would come next. There were times when this was also the primary lighting for the stage. JoAnne Hull found a set of properties which seemed appropriate to the specific time periods. Jeff Mizener was the sound designer who found sound effects for various events, but which were appropriate and understated. There were a set of recorded announcements that played at times, such as when an MRI technician was talking to Katherine Brandt in an MRI machine.
Costumes by Michael Robinson were varied, from the accurate and lush 19th Century suits worn by Beethoven, Schindler and Diabelli, to modern business and casual clothing worn by the rest of the cast. I really liked the coloring of costumes from Beethoven’s time as they were opposed to the bland and plain suits worn by Brandt and Ladenburger.
The vision by Jill Stephens appeared to be a minimalist design to let the story unfold without distraction. I sat at preshow looking at the silver metallic framework of the modern platforms opposite the black wooden platforms and reflected on the Jac Alder vision at Theater 3 in that deep well stage setting. There I marveled at the lush scenery and some of the cool theater tricks used. But as I got into the story in Stephen’s minimal design, I found myself focusing more on story structure and its intricate interplay between characters across time and space. I saw how characters built their arcs and worked with the often-parallel line delivery to stress the themes, for instance, when the three couples and Diabellli repeat lines said by each other in a round-robin style or when they said lines in unison to show how all three couples are living parallel lives. It was a powerful moment in the story and I think it was Stephens’ willingness to commit to minimal setting that allowed these moments to stand out.
I love this play by Moisés Kaufman. Of course he’s known for The Laramie Project and Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, among others, but my favorite is 33 Variations. Irving Community Theatre has done a good job of crafting a production where this very interesting story and this great music can educate and entertain audiences. I strongly recommend this as a show to see. You might see me again.
Mainstage Irving Las Colinas
Dupree Theatre – Las Colinas, 3333 N. MacArthur Blvd. Suite 300, Irving, Texas 75062
Plays through January 30th
Friday and Saturday at 7:30pm; Saturday Matinees at 2:30 pm.; Thursday Jan. 28 at 7:30pm
Tickets for Friday and Saturday evening and Sunday Matinees are $21-$28.Tickets for Thursday evening, Jan. 28, are $19-$25.For information and tickets, visit http://www.irvingtheatre.org or call 972-594-6104.