AISLE SAY San Francisco


by Moisés Kaufman
Directed by Robert Kelley
Presented by TheatreWorks
Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts
500 Castro St., Mountain View, CA / (650) 463-1960

Reviewed by Judy Richter

One of the enduring mysteries of classical music is why the great Ludwig van Beethoven devoted so much time and energy into composing his "Diabelli Variations." Playwright Moisés Kaufman comes up with his own possible answer in "33 Variations," a two-act drama being given its regional premiere by TheatreWorks.

In the play, Kaufman has a prominent musicologist, Dr. Katherine Brandt (Rosina Reynolds), exploring the mystery by delving into original scores and other documents at the Beethoven archive in Bonn, Germany, where the great composer was born in 1770. The two-act play alternates between the present in Bonn and New York City and the years 1819 and 1823 in Vienna, where he spent most of his 56 years. Despite deteriorating health, Katherine insists on going to Bonn for her research. While there, she becomes friends with the archivist, Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger (Marie Shell).

As Katherine's condition worsens -- she has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease -- her adult daughter, Clara (Jennifer Le Blanc), goes to Bonn to help her. Clara is accompanied by her boyfriend, Mike Clark (Chad Deverman), a nurse she had met during one of her mother's medical appointments in New York.

These scenes are interspersed with 19th century events in Vienna, where a music publisher, Anton Diabelli (Michael Gene Sullivan), asked 50 composers to each create variations on a short, apparently mediocre piano waltz he had written. Although denying the request at first, Beethoven (Howard Swain), took up the challenge and went on to compose 33 (including the original) over the course of several years.

Like Katherine, Beethoven had health problems, including his deafness. Also like Katherine, he was obsessed with his mission to the point where he sometimes was oblivious to other people's feelings. In his case, the most immediate victim was his loyal aide, Anton Schindler (Jackson Davis), who went on to become his biographer. In Katherine's case, the victim was Clara, who felt that her mother was disappointed in the way she was living her life.

TheatreWorks artistic director Robert Kelley guides his talented cast through Kaufman's shifting times and places and their characters' emotional journeys with sensitivity. Andrea Bechert's set, Fumiko Bielefeldt's costumes, Steven B. Mannshardt's lighting, Brendan Aanes's sound and Jim Gross's projections also help.

Onstage pianist William Liberatore plays all or parts of the variations, each of which requires virtuosity. The program gives special thanks to musical and medical experts from nearby universities, including Stanford and San Jose State, for what one would assume was valuable information and insights as the director and actors developed the characters.

All of the actors are fine. However, Reynolds, who has a strong stage presence, is superb as Katherine loses muscular control, affecting her mobility and even her speech. Likewise, Swain is outstanding as the often capricious or eccentric Beethoven is enraptured with his musical challenge, which he calls "transfigurating." Besides the "Diabelli Variations" the totally deaf Beethoven composed his great Missa Solemnis and Ninth Symphony during the years covered by the play. Snatches of the Mass are played, and parts of its Kyrie movement are movingly sung by the cast.

Although a few scenes seem superfluous or too long, they can't detract from the play's inherent power and fascination intermingled with some humorous moments.

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