Saturday, October 25, 2014

"33 Variations" at Park Square Theatre

33 Variations is part fascinating music history, part poignant family drama, and part classical music concert, which adds up to an entertaining evening of theater. Park Square's production of the Moisés Kaufman play satisfies on several levels - intellectual, emotional, musical - and features a great seven-person cast (plus one talented pianist) who bring the past and present together in an intriguing way. This is just one of two shows currently playing at Park Square (I'm looking forward to seeing the first production on their new stage, The House on Mango Street, next week). St. Paul is the place to be.

From 1819 through 1823, Ludwig van Beethoven composed 33 variations on a 50 second waltz by music publisher Anton Diabelli. It is one of the last works he wrote before his death in 1827, written at a time when he was almost completely deaf. In one of the world's greatest ironies, this brilliant composer who created some of the most beautiful music in existence eventually could not hear his or anyone else's music, except in his head. Playwright Moisés Kaufman uses this particular moment in music history as a jumping off point for his play, in which a modern-day music scholar, Dr. Katherine Brandt, becomes obsessed with this work and researches it as one of the final works of her own career. The lives of these two geniuses, Beethoven and Katherine, play out in parallel as both feel the time running out and become increasingly desperate to finish their work, to leave something behind that matters.

In the play we see scenes from the 19th century with Beethoven, his trusty assistant and biographer Anton Shindler, and Diabelli, interspersed with scenes from today with Katherine, her daughter Clara, Clara's boyfriend and Katherine's nurse Mike, and Katherine's German colleague Gertrude. Recently diagnosed with ALS, Katherine decides to spend her remaining healthy days in Bonn, Beethoven's birthplace and location of many of his papers, conversation books (used to talk to friends after his hearing deteriorated), and musical sketches. Katherine and Clara have a tenuous relationship; Katherine is one of the most respected and successful people in her field, while Clara flits from job to job, causing her mother to worry that she's living a "mediocre" life. Despite the prickliness of their relationship, Clara loves her mother and is concerned that she is doing too much and not taking care of her health. She and Mike eventually join Katherine in Bonn as her health declines. In her final days, Katherine is forced to let go of some of her assumptions about about Beethoven, music, her daughter, and the idea of success. Katherine's fate is tragic, yet it's a beautiful journey that this family experiences together.

Kaufman beautifully weaves together the two narratives, highlighted at the end of Act I when the three realities - 19th century Vienna, Katherine and Gertrude in Bonn, and Clara and Mike in NYC - collide and all keep repeating, "time is scarce," "this is my last opportunity, "I must be allowed to finish the work," each meaning something slightly different, yet the same. At the end of the play, Katherine finally meets the object of her obsession as she dreams of Beethoven and the two have a conversation. Katherine realizes that what Beethoven has done with his variations is slow down time - turn a 50 second waltz into a 50 minute composition so that the listener can hear every beat, phrase, and moment in the music. A fine example for life, but so difficult to do in today's busy modern age.

Edwin Strout as Beethoven and Karen Landry as Katherine
The Ordway's Artistic Director James Rocco has ventured across Rice Park to direct this play with music, and juggles all of the many pieces well. It all plays out on a mostly bare stage with various levels and boxy tables and chairs, with three video screens displaying the backdrop of the scene or the musical sketch being discussed. Every time a specific variation is commented upon, we hear it played by pianist Irina Elkina, on a piano that almost disappears into the background when not being played. The music adds so much to our understanding of the discussion and really brings it alive. I know next to nothing about classical music, but I found it beautiful and fascinating, and now I want to hear all 33 variations.

On the non-musical front, Karen Landry gives a brave and fully committed performance as Katherine, taking her from a stubborn, determined, independent woman to that same spirit trapped in a failing body, forced to accept help. Her physicality and speech slow down as Katherine's ALS takes hold of her. Karen has great chemistry with Jennifer Maren as Katherine's daughter Clara, with Jennifer portraying Clara's frustration with her mother and reluctance to accept that she's failing (and we also get to hear her beautiful voice). Also great are Michelle Myers as Gertrude, with a lovely German accent, and Nate Cheesman as the charming and steady Mike. Back in the 19th century, Edwin Strout plays Beethoven as a larger-than-life character, just how we imagine those creative geniuses to be - temperamental, loud, selfish, demanding, but somehow tolerated because of the greatness he achieves. Robert-Bruce Blake plays the enigmatic Anton Schindler in a such way that we don't really know if he's telling the truth, or what his motives may be. Rounding out the cast is Peter Simmons as the vain Diabelli, providing some comic relief.

33 Variations continues on Park Square's proscenium stage (i.e., the "old" one) through November 9. If you like smart, funny, historical, relevant, poignant, moving, well-written and -acted theater, with beautiful music as an integral part of the story, you'll want to add this one to your list. Stay tuned to Cherry and Spoon for a report on the new stage.

This article also appears on Broadway World Minneapolis.