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33 Variations
Park Square Theatre

Also see Arthur's reviews of Colossal and Nice Work If You Can Get It


Karen Landry and Edwin Strout
33 Variations is a remarkable new play being given its Twin Cities premier in a highly polished production at Park Square Theatre. Written by Moisés Kaufman, known for docudramas The Laramie Project and Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, which use actual interview and court transcripts to frame their stories. 33 Variations likewise uses historical record, but only as a starting point to unravel larger themes: obsession, and the ability to acquiesce to the inevitable limits time and mortality place on our ambitions.

The play tells in tandem two stories: One regards the obsessiveness with which Beethoven pursued the composition of a set of variations on a simplistic waltz by the successful music publisher, and less noteworthy composer, Anton Diabelli. Diabelli's conceit was to invite the leading composers of the day in Vienna, whose ranks included Schumann, Liszt, and of course, Beethoven, to each compose one variation on his waltz, to all be compiled into a book that could not fail to be a rousing success. It was commonly believed that Beethoven at first refused to take part, saying Diabelli's trifle of a waltz was not worthy of his attention, but that he soon had an extreme change of heart: instead of composing just one variation, he would create a set of pieces... perhaps six or seven, which in the end resulted in the 33 Diabelli Variations, considered a masterwork.

The second story is that of Dr. Katherine Brandt, a 21st century musicologist and Beethoven scholar who is determined to understand how Beethoven went from rejecting the Diabelli project to committing years of his life working on it. During this time Beethoven had serious bouts of poor health and was going deaf. His work on the Variations took time away from his completion of his Mass as well as his 9th Symphony, both projects that promised greater acclaim and remuneration. Why would he allow this waltz, repeatedly called "mediocre" by Dr. Brandt, to deter him from his own great works?

Dr. Brandt travels to the repository of Beethoven's personal papers in Bonn, Germany, to have a first-hand look at rare and fragile documents—diaries, musical sketchbooks, correspondences, business contracts—to attempt to understand what drove Beethoven. At the same time, she is racing against time to achieve her own obsession, as her capacities to work, even to communicate, are being reduced by ALS, Lou Gehrig's disease.

Beethoven too is racing against time. He is going deaf, a process that stretched over 25 years, but which culminates as he is completing work on the Variations. In general, his physical health is declining, it might appear that his mental health is also faltering, and though the most acclaimed of composers, his financial status is precarious. Diabelli himself begs Beethoven to bring his work on the project to an end, to submit the Variations he has composed, so that the compilation could be published. Beethoven insists on pushing further, that there are more variations to be drawn out of the music. He believes there are more, and cannot let go.

With many gaps and inconsistencies in the written records and no final answers in sight, Katherine is also urged to let go, by a colleague in Bonn and by her daughter Clara, who fears that her mother's relentless drive is undermining her increasingly fragile health; Clara wants her mother back home in New York. Eventually, when Katherine refuses to give up her work, Clara goes to Bonn. The truth is that Katherine has as little regard for her career-hopping daughter as she has for Diabelli's waltz—grading both "mediocre." Yet, ultimately, Clara helps to unlock a key to understanding Beethoven's obsessive work on the Diabelli Variations, and in understanding this, Katherine begins to understand the obsessions that have driven her as well.

This may all sound brooding and ponderous. 33 Variations is indeed a serious work, and welcome as such, but also has an abundance of heart and humor laced throughout its two acts. The Beethoven story makes use of extant historical documents, but there is a good deal of speculative filling-in of gaps. The window into Beethoven's creative process, and the marriage of high-art and commerce in early 19th century Vienna is fascinating. The insistent efforts of Dr. Brandt to break through the shroud of mystery surrounding Beethoven's creation of the Diabelli Variations adds a measure of a caper story. Along with that, we have the heartstrings of family drama as mother and daughter lock horns, and even romance, as Clara embarks on a relationship with one of her mother's caregivers.

Too much for one play to hold? Not in this case. The writing is consistently lucid, and transitions between 21st century New York and Bonn, and 19th century Vienna, are smoothly dealt. At times we have overlapping dialogue, as characters in one time and place experience the same passions, frustrations, or doubts as in the other. Well written as it is, the complexity of this piece demands acting and staging of the highest caliber in order to pull together its many pieces into a coherent whole.

That is where director James Rocco has provided all the right moves, starting with casting. All of the seven performers on stage create living, breathing characters. Karen Landry is exceptional as Dr. Katherine Brandt. The rigidity with which she insists on being called "Doctor" Brandt is an indicator of her determination to be important, and the drive to achieve greatness. The depth of her gradual descent from vigor to the edge of life is heart-wrenching. Jennifer Maren, as Clara, matches her performance. Her transformation is not from health to sickness, or obsession to acceptance—but from one who holds commitment at bay, who resists real connections with those around her, to being able to deeply connect, to give and accept love.

As Beethoven, Edwin Stout is a dervish of energy, constantly spouting his demands and opinions, refusing to face the reality of his debts and missed deadlines. His passages in and out of emotional balance are startlingly real, as he rails against the loss of his hearing, while continuing to perceive himself at the world's center. As his agent and friend Anton Schindler, Robert-Bruce Brake conveys both deep loyalty and exasperation with "the master," as he calls Beethoven. Peter Simmons makes a delightful Anton Diabelli, at times providing a comic touch in his flourishes and pouting, but also able to see through Beethoven's obsession to his genius.

Nate Cheeseman, as the nurse who works his way into Clara's heart, provides a grounded force for Clara as a contrast to her never-ending quest for her mother's approval. His good nature and understanding of the basis of trust are made genuine. Michelle Myers portrays Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger, Katherine's colleague at the Beethoven library, who evolves from stern taskmaster, protecting the great composer's legacy, to a true friend with insights into the forces that propel Katherine, as well the walls that keep her in place.

Throughout the course of the play, the actual variations are performed, gloriously, by Irina Elkina, seated at a grand piano at the rear of the stage. With each Variation's number identified by projections, hearing these pieces played brings us back from the agonizing uncertainties and obsessive nature of the project to the wondrous outcome. We not only hear words describing what Beethoven was about, but hear the music that tells us in ways words never could, what was driving him. The contributions made by Ms. Elkina's musicianship cannot be overstated.

The costumes by Andrea M. Gross effectively depict early 19th century Vienna, as well as the attire seen in the academe circa 2014. The setting consists of simple platforms and blocks, with lighting and projections used to create different spaces and times. Keeping the playing space relatively open and uncluttered works to advantage in facilitating the rapid transitions between the two narrative strands.

In a season that has already provided several top-notch productions on Twin Cities stages, 33 Variations rises to the upper tier, a not to be missed production of an exciting, thought-provoking play.

Continues at Park Square Theatre Proscenium Stage through November 2, 2014. 20 West Seventh Place, Saint Paul, MN, 55102. Tickets from $38.00 58.00; under 30, $19.00; seniors (62+) $5.00 discount. For tickets call 651-291-7005 or go to parksquaretheatre.org

Writer: Moisés Kaufman; Director: James Rocco; Set Designer: Rob Jensen; Costume Designer: Andrea M. Gross; Lighting Designer: Michael P. KIttel; Sound Designer: Anita Kelling; Projection Designer: Todd F. Edwards; Stage Manager: Charles Fraser

Cast: Robert-Bruce Brake (Anton Schindler), Nate Cheeseman (Mike Clark), Irina Elkina (Pianist), Karen Landry (Dr. Katherine Brandt), Jennifer Maren (Clara Brandt), Michelle Myers (Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger), Peter Simmons (Anton Diabelli), Edwin Strout (Ludwig Van Beethoven).


Photo: Petronella J Ytsma


- Arthur Dorman


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