"33 Variations"

Produced by: TheatreWorks
By: Moisés Kaufman
Directed by: Robert Kelley
Featuring: Rosina Reynolds, Howard Swain, Chad Deverman, Jennifer LeBlanc, Jackson Davis, Marie Shell and Michael Gene Sullivan, William Liberatore
When: October 3-28, 2012
Running time: 150 minutes (one intermission)
Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View, California
Tickets: $23-$73 (savings available for students, educators, and seniors); call 650-463-1960 or visit
Read an interview with TheatreWorks Music Director William Liberatore.

Read an interview with Rosina Reynolds, who plays Dr. Katherine Brandt in "33 Variations."
Read Karen D'Souza's review of "33 Variations" in the San Jose Mercury News.

Read Robert Hurwitt's review of "33 Variations" at in the San Francisco Chronicle.
33 Variations
Tracy Martin / TheatreWorks
Michael Gene Sullivan as Anton Diabelli. left, who wrote the modest waltz that Howard Swain as Beethoven turns into "33 Variations." The play is on stage at TheatreWorks in Mountain View through October 28, 2012.
33 Variations
Tracy Martin / TheatreWorks
Jennifer LeBlanc as Clara Brandt, left, with Chad Deverman as her boyfriend Mike in "33 Variations" at TheatreWorks at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts through October 28, 2012.
33 Variations
Tracy Martin / TheatreWorks
Marie Shell as Gertie, left, and Rosina Reynolds as musicologist Dr. Katherine Brandt study the papers of Beethoven in modern times, whle Howard Swain as the maestro himself rails about the quality of his soup in 1823. In the background, William Liberatore at the piano.
Finding brilliance
'33 Variations' at TheatreWorks is a powerful examination
of the creative process, and of genius and the mundane
October 9, 2012

Moisés Kaufman's "33 Variations" is a kind of Frankenstein's monster.

It takes parts of various creatures - a musical biography, a family drama, a romance and a couple of epic tragedies, and sticks them together. And it ain't always pretty. You can see the stitches where Kaufman cut open the chest and stuck in a heart, and the rivets in the head where he put in the brain.

But in the right hands, it is a thing of beauty that sings the praises of music, creative brilliance and familial love. At TheatreWorks, it has the right hands: Those of director Robert Kelley, who has taken Kaufman's play and made it into something truly great and moving.

One of the things TheatreWorks does best - and this is a credit owed to founder and artistic director Kelley - is celebrate creativity. From such pieces as "I Ain't Nothin' But the Blues" to "[title of play]" to "Wheelhouse," The House Kelley Built has long held up a lamp to the creative process and to creative people, casting light on the how and the why.

In this case, it's as if Kelley has taken "33 Variations" apart, then rebuilt it in a way that shows how a creative mind can take what seems at first to be mundane, that seems at first to be mediocre, and find its brilliance.

We meet Dr. Katherine Brandt, who is brilliant and knows it, and who is obsessed with finding out why, 200 years before, Beethoven spent years of his life working on what became "33 Variations on a waltz by Anton Diabelli, Op. 120."

The original, 50-second waltz by Diabelli is mediocre.

Brandt detests mediocrity. She wants greatness.

And, true, Beethoven made greatness, in his "33 Variations," from that mediocre tune, but why did he do it? At the same time of his life he was finishing his Ninth Symphony (my opinion: The greatest piece of music ever) and "Missa Solemnis" (referred to in the play as "the Mass").

What was it that drew him to the Diabelli piece?

Meanwhile, Brandt is also wrestling with her own opinion of her daughter, who seems to keep bouncing from career to career and boyfriend to boyfriend. Brandt fears her child may just be mediocre.

Clara, meanwhile, is pretty happy in her life, and with her own creativity. She is a costume designer who is evolving into being a set designer. She loves learning new things, and loves her mother. No problem.

But, there is a problem: Mom has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease), and knows it will kill her. She wants to finish a monograph she is writing about Beethoven and the "33 Variations" before she dies, and Clara just wants to spend as much time as she can with her mother.

But Brandt goes to Bonn, to study Beethoven's own sketchbooks of his music, and his conversation books (that he used to communicate when his deafness was at its worse). She doesn't want her daughter along.

Meanwhile, back in 1819, we meet Beethoven, Diabelli and Anton Schindler, who was Beethoven's secretary for a few years, and who wrote an early biography of Beethoven.

Howard Swain, oft seen at TheatreWorks in a wide encyclopedia of parts, is great as Beethoven. Fabulous.

Beethoven was brilliant, eccentric and excited and sure about his genius. That is the historic record.

Swain's Beethoven is all that, brought to life at full tilt. Swain, hair and robes flying, bounds around the stage with the boundless energy of full creativity, not letting propriety or poverty or even the need to urinate stop him. He has music to write, and will allow nothing to stop him.

It is a study of genius. Beethoven knew what he was, and wasn't going to let little proprieties slow his creativity.

Also great is TheatreWorks Music Director William Liberatore, who is onstage for the entire show, doing all the actual playing while Swain bounds around, and as background to other dialog. It's a lot of music, and it must not only honor Beethoven - and it does - it must work with the play.

Kudos to Kaufman and his musical collaborator, Beethoven expert William Kinderman, for marrying words, action and music.

By the time intermission comes, we have already heard a lot of great piano playing by Liberatore. Maybe my favorite short moment is when Swain, as Beethoven, comes out for the second act, and Liberatore and Beethoven bow to each other.

Rosina Reynolds, as Brandt, is fully the self-confident, intellectually superior researcher as she engages and lectures her students and colleagues (the audience). She's a tough academician, this one, who will suffer few interruptions to her work. She grabs our attention and holds it.

But then Reynolds must also take Brandt through the degradations of her disease, as she slowly loses control of all her muscles. Her hands, her legs. Then her tongue.

Reynolds crafts her performance like a well-engineered machine. Brandt has some things to realize about Beethoven, about her daughter Clara, and about herself, before she dies. Reynolds carries those stories with exquisite intelligence.

Jennifer Le Blanc is completely charming and true as Brandt's daughter, Clara, who follows mom to Bonn anyway. She is aware of her mother's opinion of her and regrets it, but respects herself and her life choices - while always being aware of how her mother has shaped her. The play takes her to many levels of emotionality and intellectual challenge, and Le Blanc always seems to fit perfectly.

The entire business of the relationship of mother and daughter is subtle and delicate. This production makes it work very well.

Chad Deverman is the male nurse who takes care of Brandt, and who falls in love with Clara. Deverman was last seen at TheatreWorks in "Of Mice and Men." He has a lot to do in this, skating on thin ice between his patient and his patient's daughter, adhering to his ethics all the way. A fine performance. Deverman is sort of ridiculously good looking, but in this role he has just the right emotional levels. No arrogance of beauty, just a good guy who wants to help these two needful women.

Jackson Davis has an enormous role (especially when compared to his relatively few lines in "The Pitmen Painters") as Beethoven's assistant, Schindler. He has to deal with the publisher, he has to try to keep the master from driving away all the servants, he has to negotiate with paper merchants and landlords, he has to wipe up Howard Swain's urine eight times a week. A thankless but vital task. Davis delivers.

Michael Gene Sullivan is wonderful as Diabelli. Sure, he delivers the dialogue well and all that; but what I loved is how he made his 17th-century clothing work. That is every bit as much a part of acting as is delivering a line, and Sullivan struts in costume as if born to it. He's wonderful to watch.

Marie Shell is Gertrude, a Beethoven scholar who begrudgingly admits Brandt to the Beethoven archives, and gradually becomes Brandt's most vital friend. It's a triumph that she makes us like Gertrude, who at first is sort of a caricature of an officious German.

The set, by Andrea Bechert, is magnificent, as anything about Beethoven should be. There are walls covered with sketch books. Movable shelving filled with archival papers and books and Clara's coffee-making accoutrements. Steven B. Mannshardt's lighting design plays off it beautifully, showing us Beethoven's soup-stained sketches.

Fumiko Bielefeldt's costumes are the goods. From Brandt's severe but attractive 21st-century scholar's duds to Beethoven's food-slopped 17th-century sleeping garments to Diabelli's proud and handsome coats, she tells a story.

In the lobby after the opening performance I heard a phrase from an audience member I have heard many times at TheatreWorks: "This is the best play I've ever seen here!"

Well, I don't know it is the best TheatreWorks show I've ever seen. But it's way up there toward the top of the pyramid, beyond my limited sight to evaluate. I urge you to go see it.

33 Variations
Tracy Martin / TheatreWorks
Howard Swain as Beethoven, left, working feverishly to complete variations on an unassuming melody, wihle Jackson Davis as his friend Anton Schindler tries to help in "33 Variations" at TheatreWorks through October 28, 2012. In the background, William Liberatore at the piano.


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