THEATER REVIEW | “33 Variations” explores Ludwig van Beethoven at Park Square Theatre


One of the most memorable moments in the film Amadeus depicts Antonio Salieri seeing a score of Mozart’s music for the first time. As his eye passes over the page, the music sounds in his head and Salieri describes each musical entrance and change in the composition’s texture with wondrous amazement. It is an experience, to the film’s viewer, of hearing something familiar again as if for the first time, so great is the difference when the details and elegance are made apparent. This is a scene that has made many lovers of classical music out of proud plebians, and one for which viewers of the stage play on which the movie was based wait in vain, as it was added especially for the film. Such a scene is found, however, in Moisés Kaufman’s play 33 Variations, now playing at Park Square Theatre.

33 Variations explores the writing of Ludwig van Beethoven’s famous Diabelli Variations for piano through the research of a seasoned musicologist, Dr. Katherine Brandt (Karen Landry). Dr. Brandt’s research is plagued by terminal illness, a tangled relationship with her daughter Clara (Jennifer Maren), and a paucity of research material to work with. This leads her to delve into Beethoven’s voluminous sketches for the variations in order to seek out the composer’s intentions, with the cooperation of Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger (Michelle Myers) and her nurse/daughter’s boyfriend (it’s complicated), Mike Clark (Nate Cheeseman). James Rocco’s direction tightly interweaves the action in what are essentially two intertwined plays.

The specter of personal decay and impending death that weaves through this narrative is resonantly done, leaving many sobbing in the audience on opening night as the inevitable approached. This, however, was not the only story being told: parallelling Dr. Brandt’s research and battle with illness is the story of the music’s commissioning and composition, as well as the composer’s own struggles with illness. This historical reenactment of sorts features Beethoven (Edwin Strout), his assistant and biographer Anton Schindler (Robert-Bruce Brake), and the publisher Anton Diabelli (Peter Simmons), a tightly juxtaposed trio whose performances strongly capture the astounding gravitas of the composer and his abrasive yet consuming personality—and the people who swirled around him. The character of Beethoven is oftten quite unlikeable, but Strout’s performance also shows compelling glimpses of the genius and sweeping force that made the composer, at his prime, so much larger than life.

The arc of Dr. Brandt’s musicological research has a strong feeling of versimilitude. Landry gives a convincing and compelling performance as a driven scholar chasing detail after tiny detail, capturing that special detachment common to academics when interacting with their children. (Disclosure: The author of this review holds a doctoral degree in musicology and worked with several very similar Beethoven scholars.) Landry and Maren’s tangled chemistry is one of the pivotal dynamics on which the play moves, and is executed very well. The atmosphere of the play is greatly enhanced through the use of projections by Todd Edwards, which servc glimpses of period paintings, Beethoven’s sketches, and other elements as things shift from scene to scene. Music from the variations themselves is sprinkled throughout and excellently performed live by pianist Irina Elkina, a touch that gives extra weight to the extended discussions of music.

The accents for this production are functional, if not excellent, but the ensemble’s performances as a whole are quite well done. The scenic design by Rob Jensen is interestingly decorated with musical notation and helps to divide the frequently overlapping scenes. The narrative that these elements collectively convey is an inspiring, if sometimes harrowing, discourse on obsession, death, and a passion for music.

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