Kedar K. Adour

Performing Arts Reviews

33 VARIATIONS brings Moisés Kaufman back to the Bay Area

Beethoven (Howard Swain, front) is inspired to compose variations on an unassuming melody in 33 VARIATIONS at TheatreWorks at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. Musical director William Liberato at the piano. Photo credit: Mark Kitaoka

33 Variations: Drama by Moisés Kaufman, directed by Robert Kelley. TheatreWorks, Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street (at Mercy), Mountain View, CA. 650-463-1960 or October 3 – 28, 2012

33 VARIATIONS brings Moisés Kaufman back to the Bay Area

This reviewer has a special interest in Beethoven’s deafness since multiple articles have appeared in our Otolaryngology medical journals speculating on the cause. The two widely held theories are that is was due to neurological syphilis leading to a sensori-neural loss and the other to progressive otosclerosis causing a conductive loss. This reviewer holds with the later since it is documented (not in the play) that he would place a wooden rod between his teeth and touch it to the piano thus being able to ‘hear’ bypassing the middle ear using conduction through the bone.

But enough of that, in Moisés Kaufman latest opus the disease of the month is amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease) and like Beethoven’s deafness is inexorable. Beethoven (over played by Howard Swain with his usual gusto) is not the major character but the catalyst fueling the mind of an obsessive musicologist Dr. Katherine Brandt (fine intense performance by Rosina Reynolds) who travels to Bonn seeking the archives of Beethoven’s life. Her Holy Grail quest is to unravel the mystery of why he spent years of his life writing 33 variations of a modest waltz written by a music publisher and sometimes composer Anton Diabelli  (Michael Gene Sullivan who is a joy to watch).

Anton Diabelli (Michael Gene Sullivan) writes the unassuming waltz that inspires Beethoven (Howard Swain)

The play is somewhat linear, but the inventive Kaufman who wrote Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde and The Laramei Project uses the device of having a parallel past time frame (1790s-1800s) unfolding in sync with the present action. It works very, very well and in some scenes the lines are identical, further tying together the disparate eras. The real glue that holds the play together is the piano playing of musical director William Liberato sitting on elevated area ‘attached’ to the grand piano playing the riffs being described in the text.

Along with the major plot of Dr. Brandt attempting to prove her thesis before her time runs out, is the discord between mother and her daughter Clara Brandt (charming Jennifer Le Blanc) that, of course, becomes resolved when the chips are down. That resolution involves a nurse Mike(Chad Deverman of SF Playhouse fame) and a Germanic keeper of the archives Gertrude (solid acting by Marie Shell).

Integral to the 17th century era is Beethoven’s longtime friend and secretary Anton Schindler (Jackson Davis) who in real life falsified some of the archives. Davis, Sullivan and Swain play off each other creating an intriguing ménage a trios’ in the theatrical sense that addsneeded humor to the evening.

Usually TheatreWorks production values are superb but the staging for this production is confusing with sheets of paper that comprise the semicircular off-white background and used for projections were falling off the wall. There may have been some significance but it escaped many of the audience discussing the set during intermission. Running time 2 hours and 25 minutes.

Kedar K. Adour, MD

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