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Review: ’33 Variations’ at Colonial Players of Annapolis

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Colonial Players’ production of 33 Variations is a musical and visual delight. Written by Moises Kaufman and directed by Terry Averill, it is a mix of a biographical play about Beethoven, and the 21st Century music scholar hoping to understand the origins behind his Diabelli Variations. It is a masterful exploration of obsession, the artistic drive, and family bonds.

Rebecca Downs plays Dr. Katherine Brandt with authority and passion bordering on obsession. A musicologist, she is determined to answer the question “Why does Beethoven write 33 variations on a single theme?” even as her body deteriorates. Throughout the play, Downs addresses the audience, working through and revising her thesis, speaking as an expert, but also as someone who understands the music personally. Is she talking about just the music, or herself too? Some of her most powerful moments come from capturing the agony of a brilliant mind in a failing body, her body tensing and her speech slurring as she moves from a cane to a walker, then to a wheelchair, and finally to a hospital bed. It is painful but compelling to watch.

Greg Jones Ellis captures the tormented, passionate genius of Beethoven. He exudes creativity and eccentric temperament, whether arguing over art versus commerce with his secretary Schindler (Dann Alagna) or suffering through his slowly increasing deafness. One of his finest moments comes while composing a piece, working it out loud while the music plays onstage. He throws his whole body into it, his hands waving in the air and circling the center of the stage, letting the music flow. He brings the agony and joy of Beethoven vividly to life.

Rebecca Downs, Victoria Scalfaro, and Paul Valleau in 33 Variations. Photograph courtesy of The Colonial Players.

Victoria Scalfaro plays Clara, Katherine’s daughter, with a youthful innocence. Hurting from her mother’s constant criticism, she is nevertheless there when Katherine needs help, taking care of her while she pursues her research. One particularly powerful scene has her assisting Katherine’s physical therapy, moving her shoulder; it is one of the most intimate moments of the play. Scalfaro and Downs perfectly play two strong women trying their best to reconnect.

Jean Berard and Rebecca Downs. 33 Variations. Photograph by The Colonial Players.

Mark T. Allen plays Diabelli, the composer and publisher, with an air of success. The composer of the waltz behind Beethoven’s variations, he captures the joy and frustrations of working with genius, negotiating payments and threatening deadlines.

Dann Alagna gives an air of devotion to Schindler, Beethoven’s secretary. He is the composer’s lifeline to the outside world, making sure he is fed and in good health. He bears the brunt of Beethoven’s abuse with a shrug, even as he asks how the rent will be paid. Many times, his speech comes from his letters and his biography of the composer, although Katherine points out inconsistences in his story.

Paul Valleau brings a steadiness as Mike, Katherine’s nurse and Clara’s boyfriend. Charmingly awkward in pursuing Clara, he speaks with authority about Katherine’s condition. His final declaration of love is both unusual and beautiful.

Ryan Shookman is an incredibly talented pianist. He plays all the music, complementing the action onstage. The actors interact with him occasionally; Alagna sits next to him at one point and “helps” with a variation. In another scene, Ellis, lost in emotion while composing, kneels at the edge of the piano. He is one of the last to leave the stage.

Alex Brady and Richard Atha-Nicholls work tremendously well together as Lighting Designer and Sound Designer respectively. Lighting and sound effects help to create different settings onstage, most memorably a CAT scan test, and an indication of Beethoven’s deafness.

Joann Gidos as Properties Designer helps transform the set into many locations, from Beethoven’s study and the archives to a hospital cafeteria and room, a nightclub, and even an airplane and subway stop. One on end of the stage is a multilevel desk; Beethoven’s chair is gold-covered with red cushions. On the other end, opposite the piano, is a small couch, dining room chair, and end table. In the middle are two benches. Most cleverly done are purple banners hanging from the ceiling, on which is projected the number of each variation as it is played, as well as other images, such as pages from Beethoven’s notebooks.

Carrie Brady does a great job as Costume Designer, giving each character a distinctive outfit. Katherine starts the play in black pants and a black and white jacket, carrying a black purse; she makes several costume changes, including once into a hospital gown. Clara begins wearing a gray dress and black heels, ending in blue jeans and a red-and-black checkered shirt. Gertie wears a dark jacket and slacks with a colorful scarf. The historical characters are dressed authentically-looking: Diabelli wears beige pants and vest, as well as a green cravat, while Schindler has black pants and coat, along with a top hat. Beethoven looks like one his portraits, in a rumpled white shirt and disheveled red bow tie.

Terry Averill has done an excellent job as Director. The actors move around the stage and each other easily and naturally. They all work well with the music, and they clearly explain musical ideas. Everything you need to know about Beethoven and music is contained in the play. A marvelous blending of classical music, talented acting and directing, and creative lighting and staging, the performance is both intellectually invigorating and emotionally compelling.

Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 40 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.

33 Variations plays from October 20 through November 12, 2017 at Colonial Players of Annapolis – 108 East Street in Annapolis. For tickets, call the box office at 410-268-7373 or purchase them online.

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