33 Variations

Melinda Schupmann

Founder and Artistic Director of the Tectonic Theater Project, Moises Kaufman is best known for co-writing the award-winning The Laramie Project with other members of the company. His play Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde also garnered critical acclaim. Actors Co-op's current offering, 33 Variations, is equally lauded with Tony and Emmy nominations, and it secures his reputation as an significant contemporary playwright.

Dr. Katherine Brandt (Nan McNamara) is a musicologist interested in discovering why Ludwig von Beethoven wrote 33 variations of a minor waltz by his music publisher, Anton Diabelli (Stephen Rockwell). She is afflicted with ALS (commonly, Lou Gehrig's disease), and against the wishes of her daughter, Clara (Greyson Chadwick), she travels to Bonn to explore his notes and diaries for clues. She is singularly bloodless in her relationship with her daughter, disdaining her lack of ambition, "You'll always be mediocre at everything."

The play is about the struggles of the characters: the mother to complete her work before her disease progresses; the daughter to come to grips with her relationship with her mother; and, finally, Beethoven (Bruce Ladd) facing his eventual deafness.

The story is compelling due to the fine acting and excellent production. McNamara captures the cold and brittle nature of Brandt's uncompromising obsession, and her depiction of Brandt's final days is wrenching. Ladd, too, is a marvel as the tortured Beethoven, driven by his genius.

Notable is Treva Tegtmeier as Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger, a suitably Teutonic caretaker of Beethoven's papers and eventual companion to the failing Brandt. A particularly charming scene in which she suggests that sex would help Katherine's trials is a lighter moment in the obsessive passion of both Brandt and Beethoven.

Understudy Christian Edsall does yeoman service in his role as Anton Schindler, noted as friend to Beethoven and unofficial secretary. Also making the most of a minor part is Brandon Parrish as Mike, Clara's love interest and nurse to Brandt. Rockwell is also noteworthy, capturing his disbelief that Beethoven has taken his simple waltz to such great heights. The groundbreaking nature of these variations will change music history.

In addition to the fine ensemble, the technical aspects of the production are excellent. Nicholas Acciani's scenic and projection design are integral to the smooth transitions of multiple scenes traversing the 200 years separating Katherine's work from Beethoven's. Andrew Schmedake's lighting enhances the tension of the storyline and provides a moody atmosphere, particularly in a poignant scene with Clara and Mike.

Underscoring the production is Beethoven's music, ably played throughout by music director and pianist Dylan Price. His sensitive execution of the music, particularly in a passionate scene as Beethoven obsesses over his compositions in near madness, is superlative.

Thomas James O'Leary's direction captures the trajectory of both Katherine's and Beethoven's obsession with their independent goals. He says, "Hearing and seeing the variations played live and seeing the images of Beethoven's original sketches (via Accaini's projections) offer a biographical reality and a visceral subliminal power, making for a more immersive sensory experience." This production is memorable and a must see.