By Moises Kaufman
Directed by Nick Bowling
Produced by TimeLine Theatre Company
At Stage 773, Chicago
Poignant and haunting look at art and life, fact and speculation, and mother/daughter relationships unfolds into a thrilling theatrical event
33 Variations by Moises Kaufman is the finest production mounted by TimeLine Theatre Company since their fabulous production of History Boys! Under the flawless direction by Nick Bowling, 33 Variations is a multi-level drama anchored by an old riddle: why would Ludwig van Beethoven spend much of his last four years writing variations on a mediocre waltz by Anton Diabelli? Shifting between past and present, Moises Kaufman’s well structured play deftly depicts the personalities and motivations involved in the 200 year old riddle.
Dr. Katherine Brandt (Janet Ulrich Brooks), a music scholar is obsessed with trying to solve the Beethoven riddle despite her battle with ALS and her deteriorating relationship with her daughter. Brandt’s drive sends her to Bonn, Germany to the vast Beethoven archives. Kaufamn’s drama is accompanied throughout by a grand piano centered on stage with George Lepauw playing one of the 33 variations during each scene. The mother-daughter relationship between Katherine Brandt and her daughter Clara (Jessie Fisher) is strained by Clara’s many career changes from actress to costume designer to set designer. Katherine deems those choices toward making Clara a most mediocre person. Katherine equates career changes as signs of instability. When Clara meets Katherine’s nurse, Mike Clark (Ian Paul Custer), the two 30somethings start a quirky relationship.
When Katherine arrives in Bonn, she starts a relationship with the dedicated Beethoven curator Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger (Juliet Hart) as both are fixated on solving the Beethoven riddle as to why he spent so much time writing the variation of Diabelli’s waltz. This inquiry is played out as a mystery with hints coming from the flashbacks to Beethoven’s stormy relationship with Anton Diabelli (Michael Kingston) and his secretary/companion and biographer Anton Schindler (Matthew Krause). Theses scenes together with Lepauw’s fine piano renditions of Beethoven’s Diabelli variations give us glimpses into the creative process used by Beethoven. In Kaufman’s scenario, Beethoven may have been more fascinated with Diabelli’s waltz finding enough in the composition to warrant 33 variations. Was Beethoven motivated by money or by trying to top Bach’s 32 Goldberg Variations or did he appreciate the simple genius of Diabelli’s Roomba waltz?
As the mystery unfolds, we see Katherine’s ALS render her increasingly debilitated as well as us witnessing Beethoven’s deafness and deteriorating health. But each has a passion that compels them toward solving their mysteries. Her Beethoven is fixated on finishing all the possible variations; for Katherine it is solving the “why” of Beethoven’s fixation. As her health fails her, Clara and Mike arrive in Bonn to help care for her mother. The professional relationship between Katherine and Dr. Ladenburger unfolds while Clara and her mother gradually come to acceptance of each other. The quest for understanding of the creative process unleashes a passion in both Beethoven ans and Dr. Brandt. Along the way, we appreciate the musical rendition of the 33 Variations deftly played by George Lepauw.
Equally engaging is the dramatic determination of Katherine to solve the riddle while also establishing a worthy understanding and quality time with her daughter. 33Variation is a marvelous structured play that speaks to creativity, obsession, and the frailty of the human body. It also speaks to the evil of mediocrity as it highlights how beauty can transform a life. The interspersing of modern mystery and past actions plays out as intensely personal and universal. Passion, obsession, and determination rule this marvelous production.
Janet Ulrich Brooks plays Katherina Brandt as the determined scholar with understated eloquence. Her depiction of the effects of ALS is honest and heart wrenching. Jessie Fisher plays the unfocused daughter nicely while Terry Hamilton presents Beethoven as a nasty, crude genius. Juliet Hart is winning as the German scholar. Matthew Krause was most effective as the secretary and companion to Beethoven. The entire cast nimbly moves through the work with nay a false note. This production has an unexpected emotional impact on audiences. Mike Tutaj’s impressive videos gave interesting background info to the piece. The tone is filled with hauntingly wonderful music and the atmosphere renders the human effects of frailty rendered mute by passion and obsession. You’d be hard pressed to find a finer ensemble than the dedicated talents that Nick Bowling has assembled for his triumphant production of 33 Variations. This is the first major hit of the new theatre season-don’t miss it.
Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast
Date Reviewed: August 30, 2012
For more info checkout the 33Variations page at theatreinchicago.com
At Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago, IL, call 773-327-5252, www.timelinetheatre.com, tickets $32 – $42, Wednesdays & Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 4 & 8 pm, Sundays at 2 pm, running time is 2 hours, 3o minutes with intermission, through October 21, 2012