by Bekah Caden
As one the most influential composers of all time, Beethoven's legacy weighs heavily on this production, and playwright Moises Kaufman puts his reverence for art centerstage.
33 Variations follows two stories. Ludwig van Beethoven (Bruce Ladd) as he composes his variations of Diabelli's waltz, and Dr. Katherine Brandt (Nan McNamara), a musical scholar, as she puzzles over Beethoven's seeming obsession with the variations. The conflict comes in a similar manner for the two leads. Beethoven is losing his hearing and suffering a multitude of physical ailments, Brandt is losing her body to ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig's Disease.
When Brandt decides on traveling to the city of Bonn to study Beethoven's notes in the flesh, her energetic daughter Clara (Greyson Chadwick), objects outright. Uncompromising, Brandt leaves for Germany alone, but not before imparting a terse analysis of her daughter's life. Clara's flighty career path leads Brandt to worry over what she sees as mediocrity. The idea of mediocrity is purely subjective but Brandt is an educational elitist who, like Beethoven, puts her work above all else. McNamara is wonderful as the proud scholar, cold and studious in personal exchange, yet comes to glowing life when discussing her work, and that of Beethoven.
Chadwick is lovely as the straightforward Clara. She hesitantly begins a relationship with her mother's nurse, Mike (Brandon Parrish bringing a realism and earnestness necessary to the role of a healer), after running into him outside of the hospital. Mike is eager and willing to put the time and effort into a relationship. Clara is confused - worried about her mother and her personal future, even after explaining that her capriciousness is a choice. Clara's eventual and inadvertent musicological discovery is a gentle reminder that this supposed mediocrity is more than her mother believes.
In Germany, Brandt dives into her work assisted by the librarian, Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger (Treva Tegtmeier). Gertie, as she comes to be known, is an elitist comparable to Brandt. The overabundance of pride and pomp between them leads to a comedic brusqueness that eventually turns into admiration. Clara and Mike's appearance in Bonn assists with their softening, and the four become a quasi-family as time passes and Brandt's illness takes its toll.
Brant's tribulations are paralleled by the mercurial Beethoven as he is believed to have been - loud, a bit outrageous and with a childish humor. He is accompanied by his ever-suffering assistant, Anton Schindler (John Allee), through his commission for a single variation of Diabelli's (Anton Rockwell) waltz. Beethoven's obsession turns a simple assignment into years of work. Allee and Rockwell are the epitome of propriety so associated with the period and are dapper as can be in Vicki Conrad's costuming.
Where Brandt has class and composure, Beethoven is disheveled and rude. He lives in poverty, twisted up in his mind and musical obsession. Brandt is clean, self-assured, cold. Beethoven burns with rage and creative madness. He can't control the variations as they flow through him while she abhors the lack of control that comes with losing one's body. Brandt is given every comfort that modern medicine can provide. She moves from cane, to walker, to wheelchair, to hospital bed with grace and composure. They spiral around each other with desperate fervor and eventually meet in a bittersweet and surreal exchange.
Watching Beethoven's descent is incredibly uncomfortable - it should be. A musical genius is dying alone, having given everything to his craft. One of the final scenes has only Ladd on stage, composing Beethoven's Great Fugue (one of his final compositions, created when he was almost completely deaf) as pianist Dylan Price plays it (and the variations) in real time. Ladd seems to fall into the music Beethoven is crafting in his head. He looks peaceful and passionate, but then folds back in on himself, twisting and contorting to the pain in his dying body. Sweating and crying, he grasps at the air as though struggling to reach for Atropos and her abominable shears.
The complexity of this production is something to behold, with the interweaving storylines and Thomas James O'Leary's fantastic direction allowing for clever discourse between the characters. We alternate between the present and past with masterful precision as these two giants (in their own rights) are forced to confront their end.
Nicholas Acciani's set is simply spectacular. Every piece is used in an incredibly versatile way; columns become window shutters, drawers and book shelves. Floating column tops add a wonderful dimension to the stage, book shelves become beds, and the on-stage piano becomes a table. Beethoven's sketches are projected across the stage as they are examined by Brandt, Gertrude, and in the past by Schindler.
No detail too small, no word spoken without fidelity to craft; 33 Variations is theatrical perfection.
Running now at Actor's Co-op. Get your tickets here.
Photos by Lindsay Schnebly.