BWW Reviews: The Madness and Sadness of Garden Theatre's 33 VARIATIONS
A variation in music occurs when a theme is repeated in different ways, but has changes in rhythm, melody, orchestration, etc. The play parallels classical composer Beethoven's later life with Dr. Katherine Brandt. This is definitely not a show to see if you want a fuzzy upbeat good performance, but there's something to be said about the beauty of story and quality of actors. In short, 33 VARIATIONS is depressing, but beautifully done.
Towards the end of Beethoven's life and career he created 33 variations on a mediocre piece of music called Diabelli's Waltz. Though sick and deaf he continued to obsessively write these variations despite the music publisher and his assistant's protests. Fast forward a few hundred years and Dr. Katherine wants to understand why Beethoven focused on this piece. At the opening of the play, it is revealed that Katherine was recently diagnosed with ALS. Despite her failing health, Katherine travels to Bonn to look at Beethoven's original sketches and try to prove her Beethoven hypothesis.
The relationship between Katherine and her daughter, Clara, is shaky at best. Katherine is dissatisfied with Clara's mediocrity, and Clara is often pushed away by her mother's work. Throughout the play there are weaved in scenes of Beethoven's life and his interactions with his assistant Schindler and the publisher Diabelli. There is an obvious parallel between Katherine and Beethoven, each having an obsession and missing the human connection in their lives.
Written by Moises Kaufman, 33 VARIATIONS touches the hard issues of death and life fulfillment. This production has a live concert pianist (Julian Bond) who is mesmerizing to listen to and watch. The variations help connect the scenes with Act II featuring a longer variation that truly demonstrates Bond's masterful piano skills.
Peg O'Keef gives a heartbreaking performance as the dying Katherine. She is so full of life in the beginning, but goes through a shocking transformation. It is hard to believe that it is the same actress throughout the play.
Chris Gibson as Beethoven is angry and loud, almost too loud for the small theater. Gibson does a great job displaying Beethoven's fixation on his work. Again, it is heartbreaking watching a genius lose his mind and eventually his hope. Both Gibson and O'Keef give every ounce of emotion in their performance and though the characters interact very little, there is a strong bond between them.
Other characters of note are Clara (Becky Eck) and her boyfriend Mike (Mike Deaven). The pair is adorable together. Becky plays the whiny daughter well and makes no apologies for her mediocre life. In the end she is a strong character, but vulnerable to her mother's hurtful words. Mike is an awkward boyfriend, but in that "aww cute" way. He provides the much needed comic relief.
The set is what gets people talking. It's a simple white background with the grand piano sitting center. There is sheet music flapping freely and an upper level. The white is great for the dramatic lighting, but the real magic occurs with the projections. Brilliant use of technology, allows the play to move seamlessly between centuries, and locations.
Directed by Aradhan Tiwari and produced by Beth Marshall Productions, 33 VARIATIONS runs at the Garden Theatre until March 30. For tickets and more information about the Garden Theatre's upcoming 2014 - 2015 season visit www.gardentheatre.org.
Photo credit: Kristin Wheeler KHPhotographics