Also see Susan's review of The Unmentionables
These questions are at the heart of 33 Variations, the luminous play by Moisés Kaufman receiving its world premiere at Washington's Arena Stage.
The historic facts are as follows: in 1819, a music publisher named Anton Diabelli (Don Amendolia) composed a simple waltz tune, then approached 50 Viennese composers to create one variation each on his theme. Ludwig van Beethoven (Graeme Malcolm) originally dismissed the request as beneath his notice, but then became so obsessed with Diabelli's composition that, by 1823, he had created a set of 33 variations.
Kaufman, who also directed, does not take a documentary view of Beethoven's creation of the composition, now known as the Diabelli Variations. Rather, he examines it through the prism of a contemporary Beethoven scholar, Katherine Brandt (Mary Beth Peil), who explores the mystery through her research at the Beethoven House in the composer's hometown of Bonn, Germany.
Like Beethoven, whose encroaching deafness and general ill health are factors in the creation of the variations, Katherine is fighting the effects of a degenerative disease: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the neurological disorder also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. Katherine is also working through a prickly relationship with her daughter, Clara (Laura Odeh), whose concern about her mother's health is complicated by her growing relationship with the mother's nurse, Mike (Greg Keller).
Cleverly, Kaufman echoes musical composition techniques in his scenes. Themes occur and recur in different contexts; characters in the three main stories echo each other and sometimes overlap their lines as in a fugue. Beyond that, the language itself is musical, filled with resonance and depth.
Some of the characters seem a little broadly drawn at first – Keller's sweet, clumsy nurse, and Erik Steele's harried assistant to Beethoven – but they deepen as the audience gets to know them. Peil portrays an admirable woman without becoming sanctimonious, and Malcolm presents Beethoven as the rough-edged, volcanic talent he no doubt was. Adding measurably to the depth of the proceedings is the live performance of some of the variations by pianist Diane Walsh.
Derek McLane's scenic design in the intimate Kreeger Theatre draws the audience into the Beethoven archives: moving walls created from sheets of musical manuscript, seemingly infinite numbers of stacks of file boxes. Jeff Sugg's projection design brings the composition and curatorial processes to life through animation and selective highlighting of musical text.