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Review: Brilliant Performances and Glorious Music Highlight 33 VARIATIONS at the Actors Co-Op in Hollywood

Moisés Kaufman is a playwright, director, and founder of Tectonic Theatre Project, best known for writing THE LARAMIE PROJECT with other members of the group. Kaufman has described himself by saying "I am Venezuelan, I am Jewish, I am gay. I live in New York. I am the sum of all my cultures. I couldn't write anything that didn't incorporate all that I am."

As a true believer in extensive research for plays based on real events in many cultures, his play 33 VARIATIONS now onstage at the Actors Co-op in Hollywood, directed by Thomas James O'Leary and staged on a remarkably versatile small stage set designed by Nicholas Acciani (who also designed the accompanying amazing projections), enhanced by O'Leary's jaw-dropping, scene-changing choreography, is based on Kaufman's research into the obsessive composer Ludwig Van Beethoven near the end of his life in Bonn and earlier in Vienna as he created a collection 33 variations on what was basically a "beer hall waltz."

Often called the greatest set of variations ever written for keyboard, the 33 Variations on a waltz by Anton Diabelli, Op. 120, commonly known as the Diabelli Variations, was written by Beethoven between 1819 and 1823, the time frame of his life which is examined in the play, told concurrently with a modern-day fictional story of college professor Dr. Katherine Brandt as she ventures to Bonn to complete her research on why the great composer chose to spend so much time working on such a second-rate piece of music. Along the way, we learn these two will give up nothing in order to reach their goals, even though both were suffering great medical challenges threatening to sidetrack their work. And, even though they're separated by 200 years, these two people share an obsession that might, even just for a moment, make time stand still.

Director O'Leary shares in his program notes his interest in presenting the show in the small space after seeing its 2011 run at the much larger Ahmanson: "I am struck by the questions posed by the play's interweaving themes and narratives. When does curiosity turn into obsession? When are we following a divine path, and when are we forcing a solution? And is it always the right thing to go to any lengths in order to achieve our goals?" Both Beethoven and Dr. Brandt, as well as every other character in the show, learn to deal with their own obsessive behavior in ways so similar and yet so different.

But before I go on, I must commend the Pianist/Music Director Dylan Price for his outstanding onstage performance of Beethoven's work throughout the play, by far not the easiest piano pieces to play well, which he does throughout. In one scene, as Beethoven (portrayed by the incredibly talented Bruce Ladd) discusses the differences between the 33 variations as he gets more and more agitated, with Price playing them all as if being directed by Beethoven's descriptions from moment-to-moment. It is a tour-de-force scene for both men and a highlight of the production.

Another tour-de-force performance takes place by Nan McNamara as Dr. Katherine Brandt, who we know should not be traveling to Bonn as her daughter Clara (Greyson Chadwick) lets us know her mother is dealing with a medical problem we later learn is ALS. But Nan is about to discover the biggest challenge of her life is about to transform her world when she arrives in Bonn and meets the very Germanic museum curator Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger (Treva Tegtmeier) who quickly becomes her best friend, bringing Beethoven's original writings to Katherine so she can study them when she is no longer able to get around. These three women show us what it means to support a friend, no matter what, and their concern and caring for each other is inspirational when the going gets tough.

Rounding out the cast (at the performance I attended) are three pivotal characters. First was Christian Edsall who stepped in for John Allee as Beethoven's "friend" and all-around assistant Anton Schindler. His task is to be the perfect caregiver, staying true to his duties no matter how degrading his "master" becomes as his health and hearing deteriorate. Edsall perfectly embodies the role, performing the most intricate scene-changing choreography without a stumble. Had I not known otherwise, his performance surely is worthy of full credit rather than that of an understudy.

The "beer hall waltz" composer and musical publisher Anton Diabelli is portrayed by spit-curl rocking Stephen Rockwell. Asa his impatience mounts with Beethoven's total lack of regard for the timing necessary to get the variations published, Rockwell shares his need for speed as well as his knowledge that his publishing career is based mostly on his contract with Beethoven, which he dare not lose by confronting the "master" too often.

At the beginning of the play, Clara accompanies her mother on a doctor's appointment to get cleared to travel and meets nurse Mike Clark (Brandon Parrish), another caring soul who puts his own interests aside to care for the people he loves. Mike seems to be the perfect man for Clara, and as much as she fights it, we know through her mother's dying visions that the two will live a happy life together with children of their own. That acknowledgment allows Katherine to finally slip away, only to see her meet up with Beethoven who finally confesses to her the reason he spent so much time on the variations. And I am not going to reveal anything as you really should see this marvelous production and be carried along with the remarkable cast as all is revealed.

33 VARIATIONS is EXTENDING through Sunday, March 26 at the Actors Co-op David Schall Theatre, 1760 N. Gower St. (on the campus of the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood) in Hollywood. Performances are Friday and Saturday evenings at 8:00pm and Sundays at 2:30pm (with a Saturday Matinee March 18 at 2:30pm). There will be no performance on Friday, March 24. Ticket prices are $30.00 for all Performances. Seniors (60 and over) - $25 and Students - $20.00 - with Student Rush Tickets available at Friday performances (excluding opening nights) on a first-come, first-serve basis subject to availability. Rush tickets are priced at 1/2 off regular adult tickets price. Tickets may only be purchased 45 minutes prior to curtain at the box office window. Valid Student ID must be shown. One ticket per ID. Cash only, please. To learn more about Student Rush Tickets, please call the box office at (323) 462-8460. Group rates are available for parties of 6 or more. Tickets may be purchased by phone at (323) 462-8460 or visit
Actors Co-op is located at 1760 N. Gower Street, Hollywood, CA 90028, on the campus of the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, one block north of Hollywood Boulevard, just off the Gower Street exit of the 101 Hollywood Freeway. Free, well-lit parking is available on Carlos Street (1/2 block east of Gower), with the theater entrance located just across the street.

PHOTO CREDIT: Lindsay Schnebly

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