It started with a waltz, a seemingly insignificant waltz written by someone who was hardly a musical giant: Anton Diabelli, a music publisher and minor composer in early 19th century Vienna. And it no doubt would have ended there had Diabelli not invited Vienna’s leading composers to compose variations on his little waltz. But he did.
Diabelli’s invitation was initially rebuffed by a composer who was a musical giant: Ludwig Van Beethoven. But Beethoven changed his mind – and then he became obsessed. Over the next several years he wrote not one variation, not a few, but 33 variations. As a result, we have Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, which many consider the greatest work of variations ever written and which pianist Alfred Brendel even called “the greatest of all piano works.”
We also have 33 Variations by Moisés Kaufman, which opens this Friday at Silver Spring Stage. Kaufman builds his play around two characters: Beethoven (played by Joseph Mariano) and Dr. Katherine Brandt (Yvonne Paretzky), a 21st century, New York-based musicologist who asks “Why?” What made the genius Beethoven – his hearing failing, his health deteriorating – forsake almost everything else to work on the variations?
Director Natalia Gleason says 33 Variations touched her deeply from the first time she read it, as did the prospect of directing a play about a strong woman. “There lay a symphony of gifts to be discovered, a plethora of research to be done, and an abundance to learn. It was,” she says, “an irresistible proposition.”
Mariano describes Beethoven as “terribly conscious of his own infirmities and the limited time he had to achieve what he was driven to achieve.” As drawn by Kaufman, Katherine could be described in almost exactly the same words. Much as Beethoven needed to write all 33 variations, Katherine needs to find out why he did so. Like Beethoven, she becomes obsessed with her quest. And like Beethoven, she knows time is slipping away: she has ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease).
Kaufman puts us in both Katherine’s world and Beethoven’s. He takes us to 19th century Vienna and to modern-day New York City and Bonn, Germany – where, despite her illness and over the objections of her daughter, Clara (Karen Elle), Katherine journeys to search for answers in the Beethoven archives. In addition to Katherine, Beethoven, Clara, and Diabelli (Sandy Irving), Kaufman gives us Beethoven’s assistant, Schindler (Mario Font); a nurse named Mike (Donta Hensley) who cares for Katherine and becomes close with Clara; and Gertie (Malinda K. Smith), a German scholar of Beethoven. The play shuttles between – and interweaves – these different places and times, characters and relationships.
In doing so, it delves into an array of themes cited by the Los Angeles Times: “the personal cost of perfectionism…the mercilessness of time…the limits of independence, and…the transcendence of art and love.” Says Mariano, “Katherine and Beethoven are attached across time in these things.” Adds Font, “That’s the beauty and the tragedy of the two of them – they both felt they had so much to give before their time ran out.”
Paretzky says she was excited from the start by all the ideas in 33 Variations: “What makes anything important? What makes life worth living? What informs the eye of the beholder when it comes to creating and critiquing art? It speaks to genius – that is, being able to see the target that no one else sees.” Elle notes that genius is a complicated thing: “It can garner admiration and accolades…but it can also cause obsession that alienates loved ones.”
For the next four weekends, Silver Spring Stage will delve into all of that through captivating characters, a fascinating musical back story, many excerpts of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, and an intimate performance space that will truly draw the audience in to the worlds of 33 Variations.
33 Variations plays weekends from February 27-March 21, 2015 at Silver Spring Stage in the Woodmoor Shopping Center – 10145 Colesville Road, in Silver Spring, MD. Performances are on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., plus Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. on March 8 and 15. The regular ticket price is $20, but $10 tickets are available for select performances on Goldstar. There is also a Pay-What-You-Can preview on Thursday, February 26, 2015 at 8 p.m. The opening night performance will be followed by a reception to which all audience members are invited.