33 Variations is a drama by Moisés Kaufman that deals with the nearly always fatal disease of ALS and the study, not just of music, but also the variations of life. The main character is Dr. Katherine Brandt who is a musicologist studying Beethoven. She has recently been told she has ALS and a limited time to live. Brandt is also on her own personal quest to find the reason Beethoven took a little known waltz and wrote 33 hypnotic variations to it. She has an adult daughter, Clara, who wants to be a bigger part of her mother’s life, and moreover, to be accepted by her mother who now looks down at Clara’s life choices in career and love. Katherine goes to Germany despite warnings that her health will be declining quickly in search of the answer to her quest. There she is befriended by the archivist to much of Beethoven’s papers, Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger (Gertie) who helps Brandt figure out this puzzle. Katherine’s daughter and her new beau, who is also Katherine’s nurse, join her in Bonn.
There is another play within this play. We are shown pieces of Beethoven’s life at the time he wrote the 33 Variations. He has a loyal but somewhat parasitic friend, Anton Shindler who is portrayed in this play as loyal, nurturing, and a deep admirer of the genius. We also meet Anton Diabelli the writer of the waltz who now owns a musical publishing company. He wants Beethoven, along with the other great composers of his time, to write variations of his own waltz to be published in the very near future. He does this hoping to profit from the offer. The problem is that Beethoven took years to write his 33 Variations.
The play has much humor and much pathos as we watch both Katherine and Ludwig enter the twilight of their lives. Of course, for Katherine it is a much shorter twilight.
Dr. Katherine Brandt is played by Yvonne Paretzky, who brings enough strength to the role that we have no doubt that Katherine will see this quest through. She also brings to the character the stubbornness and lack of insight into her own relationship with her own daughter, played by Karen Elle. Both she and Elle establish this love-hate relationship from the opening scene. Paretzky had several long monologues where she grabs the audience’s attention and never loses it.
Malinda K Smith, as Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger, is perfect as the uptight German librarian who learns to care about Katherine through their mutual love of Beethoven. Their friendship goes through ups and downs, but the scenes of the two strong women together at the train station are the highlights of this stellar production. It here that we watch their friendship bloom.
Donta Hensley plays Mike Clark, the male nurse, who falls for Clara while caring for her mother. Their chemistry does not really start until the relationship gets close, which is cleverly written, so we are not sure if they will get together or not. Both Hensley and Elle are both very funny and endearing, especialy in a classical music concert.
Joseph Mariano plays the manic Beethoven, who is ill, deaf, and obsessed with writing these variations. And although he is explosive in many of his scenes, Mariono delivers a fine multi-layered performance as the tortured but brilliant famed composer. As his friend and agent (for want of a better word), Mario Font is a wonderful Anton Schindler. His performance shows us that although Schindler was an admirer, he also was just a mediocre musician who gained fame by chronicling his years with Beethoven. Sandy Irving is Anton Diabelli, and he gives an excellent performance from the almost starving desperate publisher to the wealthy publisher who allows Beethoven time to finish his work while accepting the genius’ tirades and put-downs.
The set and lighting design by Eric Henry and Steve Deming, respectively, is inventive as they utilize the stage, which is limited in design, to help create not just one world but five or six as we go from New York, to Bonn, to restaurants, to trains stations and hospitals. They successfuly accomplish this through slides projected on panels with the exception of the door in the library archives that Gertie opens when Katherine first arrives in Bonn. I really was impressed with the way they created shutters with Beethoven’s music written all over them when the composer runs out of paper.
Kristina Martin’s costumes for the three 19th century characters were beautifully deisgned and they allowed the actors a great deal of flexibility.
Director Natalia Gleason orchestrates this play in a way best suited to this theater. Rather than have many awkward entrances and exits, as this is not a proscenium stage, she has the actors sit on stage in chairs. Sometimes she uses them in crowd scenes or as props for the actors who are performing at the time. It allows the play to flow more coherently. She allows her actors to grab onto their roles and develop interesting and memorable characters.
Silver Spring Stage’s stunning and moving production of 33 Variations will make you laugh and cry. It is edgy, brilliantly performed, designed, and directed. Do not miss it!
33 Variations plays through March 21, 2015 at Silver Spring Stage – 10145 Colesville Road, in Silver Spring, MD, located in the Woodmoor Shopping Center. For tickets, purchase them at the box office, or online.
Obsession and Transcendence: ’33 Variations’ Opens on Friday Night at Silver Spring Stage by Lennie Magida.