BWW Review: 33 VARIATIONS Star Vehicle for Paula Plum
Written by Moisés Kaufman, Directed by Spiro Veloudos; Scenic Design, Cristina Todesco; Costume Design, Charles Schoonmaker; Lighting Design, Karen Perlow; Sound Design, Brendan F. Doyle; Projection Design, Shawn Boyle; Production Stage Manager, Maureen Lane; Assistant Director, A. Nora Long; Assistant Stage Manager, Samantha Setayesh
Playwright Moisés Kaufman has a gift for creating theatrical works of art based on actual events. Two of his oft-performed plays, Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde and The Laramie Project, adhere closely to the historical facts. However, although Kaufman's 33 Variations dissects Ludwig van Beethoven's obsession with composing the Diabelli Variations, the story is told with a fictional conceit that places the maestro's epic opus under the microscope of a present day musicologist who is driven to understand his fixation while she faces her own race against the clock. Separated by nearly two hundred years, the pair shares a desperate need to slow down time in order to accomplish a singular achievement.
Dr. Katherine Brandt (Paula Plum) is a scholar first and a mother second. Her daughter Clara (Dakota Shepard) is a disappointment to her, as well as an afterthought. Tossing off Clara's misgivings, and concerned that her funding may be cut off after years of studying Beethoven's music, Brandt plans to travel to Bonn, Germany, to continue her research into archival materials. She hopes that seeing the composer's actual sketches, diaries, and letters will give her insight into "why a genius was obsessed with mediocrity." Why would he spend four years of his waning life on variations on a waltz composed by Anton Diabelli, better known as a successful music publisher?
Clara has reason to be worried about her mother's trip following her diagnosis with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), often referred to as Lou Gehrig's Disease, a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain. For Katherine, her condition makes the journey all the more compelling, but for her part, Clara wants her mother to be safe and well cared for. Against her mother's wishes, she decides to join her in Bonn, accompanied by her new boyfriend Mike (Kelby T. Akin), who just happens to be Katherine's nurse. This dispute exacerbates the ongoing tug of war between mother and daughter, ultimately resulting in a drastic restructuring of their relationship over the course of the play.
33 Variations is set in three moments in time and three locales; Brandt's scenes are in New York and Bonn in the present, and the playwright imagines Beethoven's story arc in 1819 and 1823 in Vienna, Austria. The composer (James Andreassi) fights poverty, failing health, and increasing deafness while working feverishly to write every possible variation on Diabelli's (Will McGarrahan) insubstantial piece of music. Running interference for him is his dear friend and associate Anton Schindler (Victor Shopov), and it is through his eyes and ears that much of the story is told. During their research, Brandt and archivist Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger (Maureen Keiller) are frustrated when they discover inconsistencies in Schindler's reports, and have to factor his motivation into their analysis of Beethoven's obsession.
Kaufman calls each scene a "variation" and the narrative ping pongs back and forth between Brandt's travails and Beethoven's struggles. Seated upstage at the piano, Catherine Stornetta exquisitely overlays the composer's actual musical variations throughout the process, infusing the production with swells of emotion that only live music can evoke. Plum's performance is courageous and heartfelt, as much a tribute to those who suffer with ALS as it is a triumph of acting. Her characterization is so well-defined that she projects Brandt's personality through the miasma of the disease as it takes control of her life. In tandem, the two women are the linchpins that give the play its heart and its soul.
Shepard is equal to the task of sparring with Plum. Clara is the only ambivalent character in the play, torn between trying to be her own person (even though her mother sees her constant career changes as failure) and wanting to be there for the woman who refuses to admit needing any assistance. The struggle plays out on Shepard's face and in her body language, but she also gets to relax and enjoy life in her scenes with Akin, who brings some heat as Clara's admirer, and uses his sensitivity to warm Katherine's icy core.
Andreassi is a wonderful Beethoven, even bearing somewhat of a physical resemblance (especially the hair). The role requires him to display a range of emotions, but he is at his best when he rises to a near frenzy while describing and acting out the nuances of the fugue variation as Stornetta musically illustrates. His camaraderie is natural with Shopov, who is a credible caretaker to his master and a wheeler-dealer on his behalf.The always reliable McGarrahan shows that Diabelli is not just a vainglorious dilettante, but also a shrewd businessman and a caring friend. Keiller's spot on German accent and deadpan exterior belie the underlying current of affection and respect that she has for Katherine.
Director Spiro Veloudos has taken great pains to cast the play with actors who possess great depth of feeling and to recruit a design team that conveys the essence of the locales and the sensibility of the times. He is a masterful curator of the space constraints at the Lyric Stage, never making excuses while finding creative ways to make art. Projection Designer Shawn Boyle helps to expand the options, using maps, airplanes, and sheet music layered atop Cristina Todesco's scenic design. Charles Schoonmaker's costumes for Beethoven, Schindler, and Diabelli are beautifully textured and evocative of the 19th century. With an abundance of musical interludes in the play, Brendan F. Doyle's sound design is of the utmost importance and is effective, as is Karen Perlow's lighting design.
33 Variations premiered at Arena Stage in Washington, DC, in 2007, and marked Jane Fonda's return to Broadway in 2009, where it received five Tony Award nominations. When Veloudos saw the original production, he knew at once that Plum would be his choice to play Katherine Brandt if he staged the play in Boston. Their collaboration speaks for itself. Kaufman suggests that, although they are physically two centuries apart, the blustery Beethoven and the bristly Brandt are soul mates. They both push people away out of single-minded dedication to their work, the thing which matters most to them. In the end, they discover that passion burns hot and brightly, but a flame burns in the hearts of those who love you for eternity.
Photo credit: Mark S. Howard (Catherine Stornetta, James Andreassi)