Playing to a full house on opening night, AthensWest Theatre Co. mounted a stirring production of Moises Kaufman’s 33 Variations, a time-bending drama that musically weaves together biographical threads of Beethoven’s life and work with fictional musicologist Katherine Brandt’s life and work.
Dwelling on the composer and the scholar’s later years, the show’s thematic symmetry between the two characters and time periods interplays with poignant compositional balance. Both share an iron will to finish their individual life’s work before their death. For Beethoven (Robert Parks Johnson), it is composing 33 variations of music publisher Diabelli’s dance hall waltz. For Brandt (Janet Scott), it is writing a scholarly monograph that solves the mystery of those variations.
Beethoven battles with the loud ringing in his ears and later, complete deafness, not to mention poverty; while Brandt’s resolute independence is shaken as she grapples with the onset of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Beethoven’s and Brandt’s struggles and victories are masterfully staged alongside one another, occasionally overlapping physically and emotionally, to powerful and tender effect. Director Bo List maximizes Tom Willis’ elegantly composed set, lighting and projections, a design trifecta that features an arched background with blank music paper which doubles as the backdrop for scenic projections of Bonn Germany, a library, a hospital, and other locations. It is no accident that music director Tedrin Blair Lindsay’s piano is placed upstage and center — music inhabits, unites, even dominates, both Beethoven and Brandt’s worlds (and, one suspects by the end, maybe all worlds).
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Lindsay’s masterful interpretation of Beethoven’s variations — sometimes interjected into the story in small fits and bursts, sometimes conjuring long, sweeping moments of emotional tension or release — form the cornerstone of the story’s structural and emotional integrity. Lindsay is a contributing music and theater critic for the Herald-Leader.
Sound, designed by Rob Thomas, takes on an even greater role in one of the show’s most effective moments. When Brandt, a heretofore steely, unsentimental, pantsuit-wearing stalwart of scholarship, appears in her hospital gown, a darkly cacophonous crescendo of the sounds of hospital machines and other foreboding sounds swells loudly around her, filling the theater with the overwhelming sound of her fear, and making her appear utterly frail and vulnerable by comparison.
As the finale for act one, that lump-in-your-throat moment dramatically marks an inner shift in Brandt; she finally faces the inevitability of her disease’s progress after months of angry denial.
The moment is also the first time we see a chink in Brandt’s armor. For a very brief time in act one, I wondered why Scott portrayed Brandt with so much anger beneath the surface of her coldly determined exterior. But then it hit me: I am seeing through the privileged eyes of health and relative youth. For Brandt, capitulating to her daughter’s insistence to stop working and just spend time together would mean the beginning of the end. And like Beethoven’s struggle through the mystery of the variations that took ahold of him, Brandt is not yet ready to pivot towards an ending. Beneath the veneer of denial, Brandt knows the clock is ticking, and if she is to complete her life’s work, she must use what is left of her health and time to complete it.
Her determination is admirable if eccentric, not unlike Beethoven, who fights through physical degeneration, multiple evictions and a tumultuous political landscape to complete his composition. Robert Parks Johnson delivers an inspired, gripping performance as the maestro, with charming supporting performances by Carmen Geraci (also a contributing critic to the Herald-Leader) as music publisher and waltz composer Anton Diabelli and Daniel Ellis as “friend of Beethoven” Anton Schindler, providing generous moments of levity, ultimately becoming Beethoven’s professional and personal caretakers.
Brandt has her own team of caretakers as well with Stephanie Pistello, Sebastian Midence and Diane Wasnak providing strong ensemble support as Brandt’s daughter Clara, Clara’s new boyfriend Mike and colleague Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger, respectively.
Act one’s long set up more than pays off in act two, when both Brandt and Beethoven have breakthroughs in their professional work that poignantly allow them to find their ending, in both music and life.
Even if you know nothing about music, Scott’s haunting portrayal of someone undergoing different stages of the dying process is a profoundly moving revelation in itself. It’s rare in the theater that we see death happen so slowly and so lifelike. From walking with a slow shuffle, to walking with a cane, to losing clarity in her speech as she is wheelchair bound, to the near total incapacitation of her hospital bed, Scott takes us on a staggeringly intimate journey of the mind and body.
The play closes with exquisite pianissimo moments of sublime surrender, from Brandt’s daughter tenderly scratching her nose for her in the hospital bed to a metaphysical minuet at the end. In its third production, AthensWest creates a beautifully wrought show which lingers long after curtain. It is another hit for the burgeoning theater.
Candace Chaney is a Lexington-based writer and critic.
IF YOU GO
What: AthensWest Theatre Company’s production of Moisés Kaufman’s play.
When: 8 p.m. Feb. 13, 18, 19, 20; 2 p.m. Feb. 14, 21
Where: Downtown Arts Center, 141 E. Main St.
Tickets: $25 general public; $20 students, senior adults, military
Added event: The Tedrin Variations, 8 p.m. Feb. 17. An evening with 33 Variations music director Tedrin Blair Lindsay playing and discussing theme and variations through several musical styles. $20 adults; $15 students, senior adults, military; $10 AthensWest season subscribers. (Note: The Feb. 15 performance has been canceled due to weather.)
Read more here: http://www.kentucky.com/entertainment/performing-arts/article59767931.html#storylink=cpy