TheatreWorks offers Variations on a scheme

Oct 07

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With the help of her friend Gertie (Marie Shell, left), musicologist Dr. Katherine Brandt (Rosina Reynolds) races against time to solve one of the greatest mysteries in the life of Beethoven (Howard Swain), who is breaking the bonds of time to complain about his soup in Moisés Kaufman’s 33 Variations, a TheatreWorks production. Below: Reynolds and Swain have an otherworldly meeting between musicologist and music maker. Photos by Tracy Martin

When Moisés Kaufman gets to the point in his play 33 Variations, there’s resonance, beauty and purpose in it. For nearly 2 ½hours we’ve been tracking parallel stories: one in the present as a terminally ill musicologist delves into the mystery of why Beethoven wrote 33 variations on a waltz theme by music publisher Anton Diabelli. And the other in the early 19th century as we watch Beethoven, his health and hearing failing him, tackle major late-career works (his Mass, his Ninth Symphony) all while succumbing to an obsession with the Diabelli variations. The two stories do fuse in an interesting way eventually as issues of time, mortality and attention to detail bridge past and present while offering a spark of inspiration and insight into the nature of obsession.

Kafuman’s 2007 drama, produced by TheatreWorks and directed by Artistic Director Robert Kelley, takes its time getting to the point. Kelley’s production is thoroughly enjoyable and features some sharp performances, but the play itself doesn’t cut very deep, and the whole past/present cohabiting the stage thing doesn’t really work. In the crudest of terms, the play is an uneasy mash-up of Wit and Amadeus.

What works sublimely and powerfully is having a live pianist (William Liberatore) onstage the entire time, playing the original Diabelli waltz and then pieces of Beethoven’s variations on it. Hearing that music and listening to smart people talk about what’s happening in the music is exciting. This experience puts us inside the music and allows us to appreciate it (if we haven’t already) in a whole new way. The music, is in fact, much more interesting than the period drama Kaufman presents us with, as Beethoven (played by Howard Swain) behaves like a brilliant kook and makes life difficult for his assistant, Schindler (Jackson Davis), and music publisher Diabelli (Michael Gene Sullivan).

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Not for lack of effort by Swain, Davis and Sullivan, the past part of the play stuck in the past never gains traction. And the reality of Beethoven’s life – his hearing loss, his money woes – turns out to be far less interesting than his music. There’s only one scene with Beehoven – it’s a fantasy sequence in which the past and present fuse – that has an emotional payoff, so I can’t help thinking the play would be a lot more interesting if Beethoven’s appearances were more limited and his music was emphasized even more.

The drama unfolding in the present, at least the part involving musicologist Katherine Brandt (Rosina Reynolds) and her quest to solve the Diabelli Variations mystery, is more compelling, especially as her research becomes at once more intensely focused and more hindered by her encroaching illness. As she examines Beethoven’s notebooks in Germany under the watchful eye of archivist Gertie (Marie Shell), Katherine is exploring her passion for music and answering questions that turn out to have as much to do with her own life as they do with Beethoven. Reynolds’ performance has the requisite sharp edges but without making Katherine a cold academic.

Would that Kaufman could let Katherine’s exploration command the stage, but he tacks on a subplot about Katherine’s daughter, Clara (Jennifer Le Blanc) and her budding relationship with one of Katherine’s nurses, Mike (Chad Deverman). We see their first date and watch them grapple with the physical and emotional demands of Katherine’s illness. It all has a familiar TV-like rhythm to it. Neither Clara nor Mike is a particularly complicated character. Both are nice and well meaning and, frankly, kind of boring.

Two things here are of primary interest: Katherine and Beethoven’s music. Everything else just gets in the way.

[bonus interview]

I interviewed playwright/director Moisés Kaufman for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

TheatreWorks’ 33 Variations continues through Oct. 28 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $23-$73. Call 650-463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org.

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