In “33 Variations” Moisés Kaufman has created a deep, intelligent, fascinating, ultimately emotionally stirring play, one made vivid and appealing by director Susan Clement-Toberer and her cast at Blue Barn Theatre. The title comes from one of Beethoven’s last major works for piano, “33 Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli.” Therein lies much of the heart of the story. A progression of terminal illness and healing new love in our own time flow around, in and out of it.
The major and obvious source of interest is the focus on Beethoven’s creation of his famed composition. Its progress unfolds in a charming, engaging fictionalization of what may have happened, based on research. This is underscored by live piano performances of the Variations made even more fascinating by screen projections of parts of the manuscript. Kaufman’s impressive writing explores the nature of artistic creation while showing the human dimensions that brought it about, at the same time imaginatively dovetailing stories of modern people finding new meaning in their lives.
Some of the 33 scenes follow the beginning of the composition to its completion, Beethoven struggling with his compulsion to make the most of what he can derive from Diabelli’s piece. We see both musicians confronting each other with their separate urgencies, while Beethoven’s secretary Anton Schindler seeks to help him through bouts of anxiety and ill health.
Other scenes deal with how and why contemporary American musicologist Katherine Brandt is compelled to research and discover the story behind the great piece of music. Duo obsessions cross the paths of time. Hers is made all the more urgent due the progression of incurable, terminal Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (aka Lou Gehrig’s Disease). Both of these central characters seek to make their lives deeply meaningful. And there are scenes following the emergence of true love for Katherine’s daughter Clara, as well as the ultimately developing understanding and tenderness between the two women.
Kaufman skillfully makes all of Katherine’s waning life insightfully clear without ever bogging down in too much exposition. Yet he has the expert skill to tell us about the disease and to show its effect without ever either striving for sympathy or becoming unnecessarily graphic.
Clement-Toberer and her actors make all of the contemporary scenes completely believable and meaningful. Ruth Rath’s Katherine remains a thoroughly well-developed portrait of a woman steadfastly holding on to her self-reliance. She also gives excellent resonance to two eloquent, reflective monologues. Meanwhile Brian Zealand lights up the stage with true charm and personality as Clara’s boyfriend Mike, a memorable performance. Kaufman has written wonderful, sometimes truly funny dialogue for those young people.
As for the scenes taking place nearly two hundred before, it looks as if director Clement-Toberer chose to make them look like fantasy. This could be justifiable since the ghost of Beethoven remains on stage during scenes in our own time and, later, he and Katherine converse while she hovers on the edge of death. But the result makes those historical, perhaps larger-than-life people look more like caricatures rather than actual human beings. Omaha favorite Paul Boesing’s Diabelli* comes across as usually foolish, as if a growing relationship with Beethoven never becomes close and warm. Equally, Scottie Pace plays Schindler most often as someone distant and formal, not as a person caring deeply about the man he serves. And Nils Haaland’s take on Beethoven rages and storms with excessive volume, as if confirming clichéd public belief about him, rather than going deeper into his complexities. Haaland does, however, sometimes convey the composer’s wit and intelligence, even showing a few sparks of warmth. *(Full disclosure: I auditioned for the role of Diabelli.)
Late in the play, moments of tender beauty emerge, especially when all the characters merge into an expertly sung passage from Beethoven’s Mass in C Major, a work also from his final creative period.
Hal France is the pianist. He plays some of the variations in their entirety and, at times, fragments of others used to illustrate script comments or to underpin dialogue. France handled all the scores with skill and virtuosity at the performance I attended. However, as if he were also part of Clement-Toberer’s conceptions, he rarely came up with more subtlety to serve the play better.
The small theatre space does not seem the best choice to present the work. The piano has been placed directly in the front of stage center, probably the only workable space. But that means that dialogue spoken over the music competes with it. Clement-Toberer could have had some such scenes further away from the keyboard. When I was present, parts of the audience in the left front of the house must have understood what was spoken while France played; they laughed at the lines while the rest of us further back didn’t. A solution to the auditory discrepancy would have been to have the music recorded and controlled from a sound booth. Of course, that is not what Kaufman intended.
Speaking of his intentions, his script has titles for each of the 33 scenes. They are not numbered. Yet someone in the Blue Barn design team created projections with sequential numbers in early scenes. But none of the writer’s titles. Some later scenes, by the way, had no projections that evening. It may be that displaying his titles is not required. In this case, though, they give the mistaken impression that the musical variations are being heard in that order. That is not valid. An example: “Variation-Circus Music” is Kaufman’s (unnumbered) 12th scene, incorporating some of the 1st variation on the piano, plus some of the 21st and 3oth. This does the composer, the playwright and the audience a disservice.
Another unfortunate oversight is the lack of any program book background information about Kaufman himself, the brilliant source of what is being produced. Ten paragraphs, however, fill four pages with details about people behind the scenes at Blue Barn, with 30 lines devoted to two of them. Those people deserve recognition of course. So does the playwright.
Kaufman is a Tony and Emmy nominated director and award-winning playwright. He directed the Pulitzer and Tony Award winning “I Am My Own Wife” on Broadway and wrote “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde” and “The Laramie Project.” More info at http://www.tectonictheaterproject.org/Moises_Kaufman.html.
Moreover the program book could have called attention to the research which went into the creation of this play. Because he was interested in the history of the Variations, Kaufman extensively interviewed Dr. William Kinderman, a famed Beethoven biographer and performer of the Variations about which he has become known as an expert. Kaufman says that Kinderman “made the play possible.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diabelli_Variations#By_William_Kinderman.
Certainly some of the above may be more than you want to know. But given this marvelous, significant play, these things could enrich the experience, even as Beethoven enriched our lives.
“33 Variations” continues through June 8 at Blue Barn Theatre 614 S. 11th St. Omaha. Thurs-Sat: 7:30 p.m. Sun: 6 p.m. Tickets: $20-$25 Info at www.bluebarn.org