Review: Theatreworks’ ’33 Variations’ a smart story that makes Beethoven feel contemporary

The legendary acting teacher Sanford Meisner shared a story about Ludwig Van Beethoven with one of his acting classes. In Meisner’s own words, “Beethoven was a bastard in real life, you know. He was a real bastard. But his music is pure and based in his real feeling. That is why he was great. Not because he fired his servant, which he did, because a sock was missing out of the laundry.”

Beethoven remains one of the greatest contradictions in history. He was petulant and angry, yet composed sublimely rich symphonies. By the time he was immersed in deafness, he composed the ubiquitous ninth symphony. His music directions are filled with feelings that inform every joyous and gentle note. Truly, what Beethoven did with his genius is without parallel.

In Theatreworks’ production of “33 Variations,” musicologist Katherine Brandt (a sharp tour-de-force by Rosina Reynolds) is in a race against time, and obsessed with the work of Beethoven (a seductively sharp and tart Howard Swain). Specifically, a waltz written

by Anton Diabelli (San Francisco Mime Troupe actor and playwright

Anton Diabelli (Michael Gene Sullivan) convinces Beethoven (Howard Swain) to create a variation of his simple waltz in “33 Variations” at Theatreworks. (Photo by Tracy Martin)

Michael Gene Sullivan). What was supposed to be six or seven variations became an obsession, a solo song which could have been called “Can I Top This.” Yet, no one knows why he would do this. Diabelli’s waltz, while pleasant, is hardly the stuff of legends. It is a simple little ditty, a catchy tune with little to no complexity. Beethoven spending so much time with this waltz is almost like Robert DeNiro focusing all his attention on a fifth grade play, while simultaneously telling Martin Scorsese that “Taxi Driver” is going to have to wait.

The Theatreworks production of Moises Kaufman’s brilliant, Tony-nominated play is a smartly woven tale which dazzled, featuring some wonderfully stout performances by its principals.

The play follows some nice parallels, smartly connecting Beethoven’s own physical demise with that of Brandt’s. Throughout the drama, we also meet Brandt’s daughter (Jennifer Le Blanc), a theatre costumer who is clearly not maximizing her potential in her mother’s eyes. Then there is the wonderfully awkward Mike (Chad Deverman), a nurse who is a harmless chap, yet provides a pragmatic view of Katherine’s disease, sharing warmth for Clara, who has a front row seat for her mother’s demise.

The avenue towards Beethoven’s music was also handled brilliantly, through the dulcet skill level of pianist William Liberatore. In a beautiful side-by-side comparison, we see the projection work of Jim Gross which viscerally shows the process of a master mind at work, soup stains and all. Add in the strong performance of Marie Shell as the archives manager who provided critical exposition, and you have a well-balanced piece that might have been about a classical composer, yet also felt so contemporary and fresh.

The entire show, from a moving through space perspective, fell on the shoulders of Reynolds, and she more than delivered. Her role, which was played by Jane Fonda in the Broadway production, was both emotionally and physically demanding, and Reynolds brought the right amount of nuance and pathos. One of the most powerful moments in the show was a series of x-rays she had to take, beautifully metaphoric. The irony of the role, a woman who had to push hard while losing the ability to even push the controller on her wheelchair,.

Swain’s turn as the petulant and misunderstood genius also did not fall into the common trap of the scowling composer. His Beethoven was most definitely the one Meisner describes, yet there was another level to him as well. A jokester, loyal, one who spent much of his life searching for solitude. Swain’s variety in the role gave new depth and breadth to Bonn’s pride and joy.

To be sure, not every moment was sheer brilliance. The love story between Clara and Mike felt a mite forced at times, and the set, which featured some lovely projections of Beethoven’s work, sometimes felt clumsy, with papers falling at random times. To be fair, it might have been intentional, but it also wasn’t clear as to what the intent was either.

Where the story works so well is in the questions it asks. When is our work done? When is the right time to stop fighting and move on? As Swain had mentioned to me prior, when you are Beethoven, you don’t stop. You compose. You compose some more. And the moment you stop breathing, you take a break.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

Theatreworks presents the regional premiere of “33 Variations”
Written by Moises Kaufmann
Directed by Robert Kelley

The word: A smart production with wonderful performances gives the show a very fresh and contemporary feel.

Stars: 4.5 out of 5
Through Oct. 28th
The Mountain ViewCenter for the Performing Arts
500 Castro Street, Mountain View, CA94041
Tickets range from $23 – $64
For tickets, call 650.463.1960 or visit the official website

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