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.