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Regional Reviews: Seattle

A Mesmerizing 33 Variations at ArtsWest

Also see David's review of The Boys Next Door

Matthew Gilbert and Jody McCoy

Other than the title and author playwright Mois├ęs Kaufman, the only tangible thing I knew about the fascinating drama 33 Variations, now in production at ArtsWest, was the fact that Jane Fonda had returned to the Broadway stage in it a few seasons back. Jane Fonda isn't in it at ArtsWest, as you probably have guessed, and she needn't be, as this rich and though-provoking work is scintillatingly well served by the strong local ensemble cast, directed with skill and subtlety by Christopher Zinovitch.

The play's title refers to an ambitious Ludwig van Beethoven project that consumed much of the latter life of the genius composer, most curiously insofar as it was based on a trivial piano piece by his undistinguished fellow composer Anton Diabelli. The tale of how this piece (wonderfully played live throughout the show by pianist Katie Koch) was created is interwoven with a poignant tale about Beethoven scholar and musicologist Dr. Katherine Brandt who travels to Germany to further research the work. Dr. Brandt has been diagnosed with ALS, which is accelerating, and which she must battle during her stay in Germany, just as Beethoven was battling progressive deafness during his creation of the variations. As her health flags she is supported and fortified by her loving but seemingly neglected daughter Clara; Mike Clark, Katherine's RN caregiver who becomes Clara's boyfriend; and German colleague Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger. Simultaneously, we witness Beethoven, with support from his associate Anton Schindler, enduring the trivial Anton Diabelli breathing down his neck to finish the variations. The indomitable Dr. Brandt and her daughter bond in a way they never had before as Katherine becomes more dependent and, with the support of her daughter, Mike and Gertrude, she discovers what has eluded her about the whys and wherefores of the 33 variations. Advancing ALS is not at the forefront of the play, but love and ultimate connection are key in this ultimately life-affirming tale.

Jody McCoy gives an enveloping powerhouse performance as Dr. Brandt, painting a self-sufficient and brilliant academic whose humanity expands as her body shrinks. Allison Standley as daughter Clara is captivating in her depiction of the grown child who must start becoming the parent, and Tyler Miller is warmly compassionate yet forceful as Mike. Matthew Gilbert has a virtuoso turn as the increasingly frustrated Beethoven, and finds a humanizing humor that helps us empathize with the legend. James Lyle is a dithering delight as Diabelli, Daniel Stoltenberg makes a wry observer of Schindler, and Ruth McCree creates a believable blend of European stolidity interwoven with affection as Dr. Ladenburger.

33 Variations concludes ArtsWest's 2012-2013 season on a very high note, giving us another Seattle premiere of a contemporary play by a distinguished Broadway playwright that Seattle otherwise might not have seen, and showcasing a bright company of local actors.

33 Variations runs through May 25, 2013, at Arts West, 4711 California Ave. SW, Seattle; (206 938-0339 or

Photo: Michael Brunk

- David Edward Hughes

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