BWW Review: 33 VARIATIONS delights at Theatre Baton Rouge
Theatre Baton Rouge's production of 33 VARIATIONS is a theatrical delight. Written by Moises Kaufman and directed by Shannon Walsh, it is a mixture of a biographical play about Ludwig van Beethoven, and a 21st Century music scholar hoping to understand the origins behind his Diabelli Variations. It is a powerful exploration of obsessive artistic drive, the limitations of time, and the bonds of family.
Kaufman took inspiration for his play from the real-life "Diabelli Variations," a set of 33 variations created by Beethoven (Mike Katchmer) from work by Austrian composer Anton Diabelli. The variations are the basis of the story of Katherine Brandt (Jennifer Johnson), a modern-day woman trying to understand Beethoven's apparent obsession with what appears to be a simple composition. Through time jumps between the present day and Austria in the early 19th century, 33 VARIATIONS follows Katherine's battle against time to unravel the mystery behind the Variations while coming to terms with her diagnosis of ALS.
To create a production that transcends the boundaries of time, director Shannon Walsh has gathered an exceptional cast that transverses from one century to the next while examining the challenges that Beethoven and Brandt face. Both characters are consumed with their works while also feeling the effects of health conditions that completely change their lives; the musicologist with ALS that will one day prevent her from communicating and the composer with a gradual loss of hearing.
The struggles create a sense of sadness within 33 VARIATIONS, but that is not what the cast presents. Though there is a pain, sadness, and longing in the production, there is also much warmth and humor that creates a sense of hope long after the final curtain. It is a battle that this cast most certainly wins.
As the central figure, Katherine Brandt, TBR veteran actress Johnson is brilliant. While she has ALS, and gradually withers, she remains purely devoted to her mission in life - researching Beethoven and his apparent obsession with the Diabelli Variations, the subject of her monograph and an obvious metaphor behind the play. Johnson speaks to the audience as an expert, with an evident passion for music and what it means to her. Some of her most potent moments are watching her hold on to her brilliant mind while her frail body goes further into decline. Though painful to watch, it reminds us just how time is scarce.
Mike Katchmer, known to Baton Rouge audiences for his portrayal of Ebenezer Scrooge captures the tormented genius of Beethoven with great acclaim from this critic. As the plot segues back and forth through time, we see Beethoven race against his increasing deafness to complete the task that consumes his every thought. Exuding creative genius and a temperament that borders on eccentric, Katchmer brings a whole new level of understanding to who the famous composer was. Instead of a brooding man with a sour disposition, we see a man who knows the agony and joy of life. Also, he knows his soup, for which I give much respect.
Obsession does not give much leeway into one's personal life as Katherine's daughter Clara discovers. Played by Kaitlyn Stockwell, Clara has grown up psychologically distant from her mother and is vastly independent. Katherine disapproves of Clara's nomad lifestyle, sampling job after job with no evidence of ever grounding herself. She feels that her daughter is mediocre, just like a particular waltz. While many might agree with Katherine's viewpoint, Clara knows how fleeting time truly is, and has decided to try everything the world has to offer. While she is hurt from her mother's constant disapproval and emotional distance, she is nevertheless there for her mother, and it is through a fragile reconnection that Clara learns there is more to her mother than at first glance.
The cast surrounding them helps deliver the gamut of emotions in this satisfying production.
Bill Corcoran plays the composer and publisher Diabelli, an air of delight. As the man who wrote the waltz, he seeks to popularize it by getting other composers to add their own variations. Corcoran captures the joy and frustrations of working with the genius that is Beethoven and is quite likable as he negotiates payment and deadlines.
Clay Donaldson is the definition of devotion as Schindler, Beethoven's secretary. A lifeline to the outside world, Schindler sees to it that the Master is always fed and in good health, even when he bears the brunt of Beethoven's displeasure. The rent must be paid after all and Donaldson play the flustered aid with panache.
New to the TBR stage are Andréa Morales and Lee Terrebonne. As Gertrude Ladenburger, Morales captures the librarian at Beethoven Haus in Bonn who helps Katherine with her research. Morales brings ironic, charming humor to her role as her character is not one for jokes. Terrebonne plays the straight man Mike Clark, who works as a nurse for Katherine. Terrebonne plays the young hunk with tender understanding while also helping to cure the emotional distance Clara feels from her mother.
And finally, the major players of the performance are the ones without any line of dialogue. The essential piano playing of Beethoven's actual variations is performed by the adept accompanists Mary Grace Ellerbee and Sarah Jenkins. Without them, the effect of 33 VARIATIONS would not be so moving.