'33 Variations' - An Ode to Joy

Many of you listen to the music of Ludwig van Beethoven every day, even if you don't realize it. If you watch Keith Olbermann's "Countdown" on MSNBC, his theme music comes from his wonderful "Ninth Symphony".

In Washington, DC, there are two plays that involve the German composer. The wonderful Opus which just finished a successful run Off-Broadway and is now making an encore presentation at the Washington Stage Guild opened on September 6 and runs through September 30 (visit www.stageguild.org) and concerns a string quartet tackling Beethoven's  famous "Opus 131".

And thanks to the Arena Stage production of 33 Variations (a co-production with the Tectonic Theatre Project), you get a good picture of the process of composing music.   You may recall the wonderful scene in the play "Amadeus" in which the composer Salieri discusses the genius of Mozart.  Well, there's more, much more about this process in Moises Kaufman's world premiere.

If you desire to hear the music from the play, you can leave the theater with a CD of the wonderful pianist Diane Walsh (who plays many of the Beethoven variations to the left of the stage) playing the Beethoven 33 Variations. I did and I recommend it. I probably would have enjoyed the solo piano work anyway but after you see the play and watch her perform, it is much more enjoyable to listen to.

In Amadeus the story involved the jealous relationship between the established composer Salieri and the young genius Mozart.  Here the master Beethoven is asked to write a variation on a theme (a waltz) by the composer Anton Diabelli who has asked 50 great composers of the day to do likewise.  I would have enjoyed the play just tackling this subject.

But there is more, much more which involves the mystery and the attempt to find the answer to the age old question why would the elder Beethoven, losing his hearing and in ill health, write not one, but 33 different variations on the theme by Diabelli over a four year period.

Kaufman uses the character of musicologist, Katherine Brandt, who is in the middle of her own crisis, to travel to Germany and research the archives of the composer in his hometown of Bonn to uncover the mystery behind this.  Via flashbacks we witness both Beethoven and Brandt running out of time. While Beethoven is losing his health, Brandt is battling Lou Geri's Disease.  Her daughter, Clara, had initially objected to her traveling to Germany, but Brandt's male nurse, Mike Clark, gives Brandt approval for the journey. Clara and Clark will later head to Bonn when Brandt's condition deteriorates dramatically.

During Act I, I kept waiting for that dramatic episode I anticipated to showcase how a genius composes. It was as if the music was playing second fiddle. Well, you have to wait for Act II but what a scene it is.

Kaufman's play thus is a trio of stories, Beethoven's rush to complete his work, Brandt's attempt to uncover the rationale why Beethoven would attempt this effort while knowing she is running out of time, and the relationship between Brandt's daughter and the male nurse. I found this story to be the least memorable.

Why the character of the nurse is seen so naïve he has trouble asking Clara out on a date is beyond me. One scene that everyone will remember, however, is when he teaches Clara how to give her mother physical therapy.  It is very moving. Other than that scene though, I found his mannerisms very annoying.  At the end of the play during a lovely dance with the entire cast choreographed by Peter Annattos, I didn't understand why Greg Keller who plays the nurse is allowed to leap which spoils a lovely and wonderful scene.

Kaufman has assembled a magnificent cast. Playing the role of Katherine is the superb Mary Beth Peil. She even gets an opportunity to sing with the cast towards the end of the play and I recall her wonderful voice heard at Center Stage in the musical Triumph of Love (Unfortunately she would be replaced on Broadway by Betty Buckley).  You may recognize Peil from her recurring role on the WB television series "Dawson's Creek".

Graeme Malcolm is brilliant as Beethoven. Laura Odeh brings innocence and fear to her character as Clara. I'm sure Greg Keller is a terrific actor. I don't blame him for his portrayal as the male nurse. Eric Steele plays Anton Schindler, Beethoven's assistant with assurance. Susan Kellerman has a nice German accent and is believable as not only the musical librarian in Bonn but as a close friend of Katherine. Don Amendolia plays the publisher/composer Diabelli with panache.

Derek McLane's scenic design is simple and clever utilizing movable screens which are filled with the master's music and making the Bonn archives look like the last scene in the first Indiana Jones' film.  There are wonderful projections by Jeff Suggs. There is effective lighting by David Lander and realistic costume designs by Janice Pytel.

One line I will always remember. A character says, "We both love beauty but we can't make beauty." You can witness how one does at the Arena Stage.

33 Variations continues until September 30. For tickets, 202-488-3300 or visit www.arenastage.org.

Photos by Scott Suchman (top to bottom): Graeme Malcolm; Susan Kellermann and Mary Beth Peil; Graeme Malcolm

Related Articles

From This Author Charles Shubow

Before you go...