Little Theatre of Alexandria 33 VariationsBy Bob Ashby • May 1st, 2013 • Category: Reviews
Little Theatre of Alexandria: (Info) (Web)
Little Theatre of Alexandria, Alexandria, VA
Through May 18th
2:30 with one intermission
Reviewed Opening Night, April 27th, 2013
Washington-area audiences are notoriously profligate in giving standing ovations. Occasionally, however, a show thoroughly deserves that reaction from its audience. The performance of Moises Kaufman’s 33 Variations at the Little Theatre of Alexandria (LTA) was such an occasion. Every aspect of the production — acting, music, technical theater — exceeded even the high expectations an audience has for the work of a top-tier community theater company.
Kaufman’s script traces the attempt of a terminally ill musicologist, Dr. Katherine Brandt (Sarah Holt), to determine why Beethoven (Elliot Bales) spent four years — the same four years during which he was working on the Ninth Symphony and the Missa Solemnis — writing the Diabelli Variations, his longest solo piano work, based on a theme that everyone feels is unworthy of the great composer. By the end of the play, she creates her own answer, but solving a historical mystery isn’t the script’s main point. Rather, finding the reason for the composer’s devotion to this work acts as a kind of McGuffin, a musicological Maltese Falcon that motivates the characters’ search for meaning and relationship amidst radical loss.
The play’s strongest suit, indeed, is the growth and development of relationships. Katherine, suffering from a very aggressive case of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), wants to write one last scholarly paper on the background of the Diabelli Variations. Independent, determined, focused, and intellectually centered, Katherine keeps her smart, 20-something daughter Clara (Rebecca Phillips) at a distance, disappointed that Clara’s career-hopping and inability to commit will make her, in Katherine’s mind, a mediocrity. Clara is constantly frustrated in her attempts to gain her mother’s acceptance and approval. It takes the entire length of the play for this relationship to warm and grow, as Clara increasingly acts as her mother’s caregiver (as another character comments, one side effect of ALS is that it forces physical intimacy between the caregiver and the patient) and Katherine ultimately accepts her daughter’s steering her own course.
Katherine is a demanding physical role, as the character must change from an independent adult by stages into someone totally immobile and dependent. Holt carries off this physical transition, and the emotional changes that accompany it, flawlessly. The play — most strikingly in a brief sequence in which Katherine asks Clara to scratch an itch on her nose — provides a sobering description of the progressive effects of ALS.(For a searing description of the effects of ALS on an intellectually powerful writer striving to finish his last work, see “Night” by Tony Judt (New York Review of Books, February 11, 2010) and “Tony Judt: A Final Victory” by Jennifer Homans (New York Review of Books, March 22, 2012). These are available online in the New York Review of Books’ issue archive.)
Another significant relationship for Katherine is with the archivist assisting her research into Beethoven’s written records in Bonn, Germany, Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger (Melanie Bales). At first a rather stereotypical fussy librarian, Gertrude grows into Katherine’s faithful friend who is willing to bend archive rules to assist the research and who is able to handle Gertrude’s emotional growth credibly, as well as managing a believable German accent in the process.
Meanwhile, Clara begins a romantic relationship with her mother’s nurse, Mike Clark (Matt Baughman). Baughman plays Mike as sweet, goofy, deeply kind young man, with a very loose, easygoing physicality, who drops everything to accompany and take care of Clara while Clara is caring for her mother in Germany. (How they support themselves in Bonn, having left their jobs behind in New York, is unclear.) Clara, while clearly attracted to Mike, takes a good deal of time to accept a relationship with him, having to overcome not only her longstanding inability to make commitments but her focus on acting as her mother’s caregiver. Both actors succeed in making the audience root for their coming together, though it must be said that the development of their connection at times hews too closely to rom-com convention (above all in a well-played scene of their awkward date at a classical concert).
Kaufman’s script juxtaposes scenes of these contemporary characters with 19th century scenes concerning the writing of the Diabelli Variations (example of a sample performance). Diabelli himself (David Rampy), Beethoven’s music publisher, has written a short, simple waltz (described later by a contemporary character as a “beer hall dance”). He invites the leading composers of the day to write variations on it, which he intends to publish as a charity fund-raiser. Rampy’s Diabelli is a stout, loud, bombastic, fellow who, bereft of any significant musical talent of his own, recognizes and nurtures the talent of others (at a nice profit, of course). Against his better commercial instincts, he waits, however impatiently, for Beethoven to finish his ever-expanding set of variations, but ultimately is warmly appreciative of the music he has received and proud of his ability to make it available to the world.
Kaufman’s Beethoven is the very picture of the irascible artist; loud, demanding, rude, intensely aware of his own genius, a prima donna if ever there was. Somewhat like the Mozart character in Amadeus, this Beethoven teeters between low comedy and high inspiration. Bales gets all these sides of the character, and is particularly strong in showing his character’s emotional reaction to his loss of hearing and his spiritual ferocity in the face of weakening health.
Beethoven’s secretary, Anton Schindler (Ken Gaul) begins as a comically subservient, though practical, assistant, and grows into a confidant and caregiver to his “master.” Like other relationships in the play, this one begins at some distance and moves toward depth and closeness, making the play essentially an optimistic one despite Katherine’s fatal illness. The play’s focus on relationships is nowhere clearer then in the brilliantly executed final scene to the first act, in which three pairs of characters, using similar and in many cases identical words, with overlapping dialogue, explore the parallel issues in their lives.
The final, and in some ways most important, character in the play is the music itself, represented by pianist and music director Matt Jeffrey. Playing a grand piano in a nook upstage left, Jeffrey expertly plays through selections from the Diabelli Variations, keyed by the playwright to the emotional tone of various scenes. Jeffrey must be closely attuned to the action on stage, since he is called upon to play, on tight cues, excerpts from various drafts of Beethoven’s score, including snippets sometimes only a measure or two in length. Another musical highlight of the evening comes when four characters sing a Kyrie from the Missa Solemnis at a time of great distress for Katherine. The romantic heroism of Beethoven’s music, his heroism in continuing with it despite his loss of hearing and health, and Katherine’s heroism in trying, virtually to her last breath, to understand the music and where it came from, are at the core of 33 Variations.
The contemporary and 19th century characters and scenes often occupy the stage simultaneously, and Joanna Henry’s direction keeps the juxtapositions, interactions, and parallels of the scenes from the two periods clear and understandable. There is direct contact at a few points. The first, briefly and successfully, has Katherine and Beethoven sitting on a gurney, facing opposite directions, silently sharing their afflictions. Later, as Katherine is near death, Beethoven (in Limbo, he says) visits her. It is understandable that Kaufman wanted to have someone comfort Katherine, and perhaps the audience, with this fantasy conversation, but Beethoven as counselor/comforter is not consistent with Beethoven the driven genius/prima donna that Kaufman has shown us throughout the play. Better to have avoided this sentimental touch, especially for as unsentimental a character as Katherine. A delicate dance to the final variation brings a graceful close to the proceedings, as the 19th century and contemporary characters move to Beethoven’s minuet in their common love for the music.
Every aspect of the technical production shines. Chris Feldman’s set is a curved two-story, light-colored unit with the aforementioned piano nook on stage left and a floor-level entrance and balcony on stage right. Henry uses the balcony effectively in a number of scenes, notably the concert date scene for Clara and Mike. Alan Wray’s varied sound design, including Beethoven music not played by Jeffrey and the sounds of medical equipment, has its best moment when shrill tones, representing the ringing that Beethoven hears in his ears as his hearing impairment worsens, come precisely on cue as Bales claps his hands to his ears. Annie Vroom’s costumes are realistic for both centuries and are well individualized for each of the characters.
In a show so focused on what people hear, it is gratifying that the visual impact of the show is not neglected. The set acts as a screen for a variety of excellent projections (e.g., a concert hall, the city of Bonn, copies of Beethoven’s scores), designed by Jim Hartz. Ken and Patti Crowley’s lighting design is a marvel, with many notable touches such as narrowly aimed specials on Carla and Mike in their concert date scene, green fluctuating lights on Katherine for a medical test, and strobe lights on her during another medical test as she turns from one side to the other. There are a series of vibrant, warm colors on Jeffry in the piano nook. The design ably delineates the playing areas devoted to contemporary and 19th century scenes when both physically share the stage. There is a scene in which the entire stage is bathed in a low intensity purple light, greatly enhancing its emotional effect.
One of the lessons of this production is that resources matter. Only a group with a core of excellent designers and technical staff and the budgets to carry out their ideas, like LTA or, among others, Reston Community Players (which opened its own production of 33 Variations this weekend) could expect to mount a show of this complexity with this degree of success. But actors and production staff still have to make good use of the available resources to create a show that works this well, and for doing so the participants in LTA’s production deserve all the applause they are getting.
“When you listen to music, Mom, you look like you’re talking to God.”
33 Variations toys with variations on the conventional way of revealing a story with a series of vignettes that are windows into the lives of Dr. Katherine Brandt and the subject of her research, Beethoven, as well as a journey into ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). It also raises questions about the human condition: a mother coming to terms with her daughter, a composer coming to terms with his genius. The process of transfiguration is portrayed throughout the play. Vignettes flip back and forth between the lives of the two main characters and, just for a moment, time stands still. As the author Moises Kaufman states: “This play is not a reconstruction of an historical event; rather, it is a series of variations on a moment in life.”
I strongly feel that Beethoven’s music is an eighth character. Each character, each scene, each piece of dialogue, each variation contributes its own part to the whole, at times taking a solo portraying a more quiet, tender moment, at other times combining in grandiose style to project a more compelling, powerful moment. While listening to these variations again and again, I was taken aback by how Kaufman relates them to Katherine’s life. Katherine’s explanation of Variation #1, giving Beethoven’s reasons for starting his variations on this waltz, reflects the personal journey she is about to take. Her explanation of Variation #3 mirrors where she and her daughter are personally in their lives. The last scene before the intermission relates the urgency of Katherine finishing her research to that of Beethoven finishing his variations. Beethoven’s monologue while he’s composing the fugue (Variation #32) is another insight into the state of Katherine’s life with ALS. When Beethoven and Katherine finally have a conversation together (Limbo), he’s telling her to embrace what’s coming and not fear it, because it will be a relief. Katherine’s comments at the end of the play are a tribute to her daughter and the variations in their relationship. Beethoven ends his variations with a minuet, often called a “graceful” dance, which the author links to the grace that is mentioned earlier in describing both Katherine and Clara.
I’ve had the unfortunate personal knowledge of watching my cousin experience and succumb to the devastation of ALS. He courageously accepted his fate and made the most of the time left to him, as Katherine did. He was always cheerful, always positive. He loved theater and he loved to dance; he was my “dance partner” at many family weddings. I think of him every day and imagine him dancing now, released from the constraints of the final years of his life, enjoying the freedom of a dance, perhaps even a minuet.
Thank you to so many people at LTA who have made this production a reality. Thank you all! And how could his play happen without the brilliance of Matt Jeffrey on the piano? Thank you, Matt-thank you, thank you!
Kaufman has said that 33 Variations is an exercise in figuring out how theater speaks. “It’s a play WITH music, it’s a play WITH dancing, it’s a play WITH singing…It really tries to redefine how the theatrical space is used.”
Photos by Doug Olmsted
- Pianist: Matt Jeffrey
- Dr. Katherine Brandt, a musicologist: Sarah Holt
- Clara Brandt, her daughter: Rebecca Phillips
- Mike Clark, a nurse: Matt Baughman
- Anton Diabelli, a music publisher: David Rampy
- Ludwig van Beethoven: Elliott Bales
- Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger: Melanie Bales
- Producers: David Hale, Bobbie Herbst, Russell Wyland
- Assistant Producer: Marian Holmes
- Director: Joanna Henry
- Stage Managers: Christine Farrell, Joan A.S. Lada
- Assistant Stage Managers: Elizabeth Addington, Zell Murphy
- Music Director: Matt Jeffrey
- Choreographer: Greg Monroe
- Dance Captain: Rebbeca Phillips
- Set Design: Chris Feldmann
- Set Construction: Chris Feldmann
- Assisted by: Jeff Gathers, Jim Hutzler, Dan Remmers, Rance Willis
- Lighting Design: Ken and Patti Crowley
- Costume Design:Annie Vroom
- Assisted by: Kathleen Kolacz, Megan Murphy, Martha Raymond
- Sound Design: Alan Wray
- Assisted by: Keith Bell, David Correia, Margaret Evans-Joyce, Jack Seaver
- Set Painting: Mary Hutzler
- Assisted by: Leighann Behrens, Luana Bossolo, Bobbie Herbst, Maureen Lauren, Patty Lord, Leslie Reed
- Set Decoration: Marian Holmes, Russell Wyland
- Master Electrician: Eileen Doherty
- Assisted by: Kira Hogan, Pam Leonowich, Doug Olmsted, Nancy Owens, Donna Reynolds, Marg Soroos, Adam Wallace
- Property Design: Julia Harrison, Nicole Zuchetto
- Assisted by: Sharon Field, Jean Koppen, Jayn Rife, Margaret Snow
- Wardrobe: Barbara Helsing
- Assisted by: Alise Beyninson, Jamie Blake, Jean Coyle, Elsa Kolle, Rachel Pharr
- Hair and Makeup Design: Bette Williams
- Projection Design: Jim Hartz
- Assisted by: Sarah Boyd, Rebekah Parkinson, Marge Soroos, Russell Wyland
- Rigging: Russell Wyland
- Photographers: Doug Olmsted, Tabitha Rymal-Vaughn
- Audition Coordinators: Mary Lou Bruno, Maria Ciarrocchi
- Assisted by: Sharon Field, Barbara Helsing, Zell Murphy, Sherry Singer
- Double Tech Dinner: Sharon and Lenard Dove
- Opening Night Party: Virginia Lacey, Frank Shutts
- Assisted by: Nancy Cefalo, Eddy Parker, Rebecca Sheehy, Myke Taister
Disclaimer: Little Theatre of Alexandria provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/9445.
Bob Ashby has been an active participant in the Washington-area community theater scene since his arrival in town in 1975.