ArtsWest stages NW premiere of ‘33 Variations’
A review of Moisés Kaufman’s “33 Variations,” which juxtaposes Beethoven’s late-life obsessions with those of a modern musicologist.
Special to The Seattle Times
By Moisés Kaufman. Runs through May 25 at ArtsWest Playhouse, 4711 California Ave. S.W., Seattle; $10-$34.50 (206-938-0339 or www.artswest.org).
An award-winning Broadway play by writer Moisés Kaufman (acclaimed writer of “The Laramie Project”) is having its Pacific Northwest premiere in West Seattle at ArtsWest.
The title of the play refers to Ludwig von Beethoven’s “Diabelli” variations, a piano work that is a curious anomaly: It is based on a mundane theme by a mediocre composer, which somehow occupied huge portions of Beethoven’s final working years.
Why would the great composer spend his final years dealing with such piddly subject matter, instead of focusing on other, grander works he was working on then — the famed Ninth Symphony and the Missa solemnis? That mismatch captivates modern musicologist Dr. Katherine Brandt (played with curmudgeonly delight by Jody McCoy), who pushes the last of her life’s energy to finish her research in Germany, while fighting Lou Gehrig’s disease.
In the action of the play, we see two centuries overlap. Beethoven pursues his obsession in the face of his own failing health, cared for by his friend Anton Schindler, while Brandt pursues hers, restrained (just barely) by her concerned daughter, Clara.
If this seems like the sort of play that requires classical music training to appreciate, be assured it is not. It’s every bit as accessible a drama as “Amadeus.” In fact, while it elucidates bits of the music in fascinating ways (Katie Koch performs elegantly on piano throughout the play, and visual projections support all of the musical ideas), at its core it’s a human drama: The composer and the scholar each push themselves to finish their grand projects while fighting off death itself. The musical ideas provide a thread that weaves subtly through the story.
This is a very well-cast play, full of life and humor and music and pathos. Matthew Gilbert seems born to play Beethoven — raging, misunderstood, unapologetic, and still full of boundless idealism as he tries to heal the world without being able to heal himself. James Lyle and Daniel Stoltenberg supply delightful comic relief as two prim and mediocre Beethoven associates, Anton Diabelli and Anton Schindler.
Mark Tyler Miller is a delight from his first scene as Mike Clark, the nurse to the ailing musicologist, and then as a sympathetic lover of her daughter, played by Allison Standley, whose empathy and spark practically steal the show. The tender awkwardness between the two lovers is both hilarious and heartwarming, and a necessary refreshment in the face of the disease and death that surrounds them.
But beyond the individual excellence in the performances, the ensemble acting impresses. Certain group scenes are very difficult to perform, and for director Christopher Zinovitch (who also designed the innovative, time-themed set), it must have been almost like conducting an orchestra, one performing a piece with precisely triggered entrances for each different instrument.
Considering the heavy subject matter, the play is extremely lighthearted and life-affirming. The characters, facing down death, spend themselves, ultimately, on life. They do not choose caution. They choose to create beauty boldly. ArtsWest makes this same choice.