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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, May 17, 2013 - Volume 41 Issue 20x
A classical mystery - ArtsWest explores Beethoven's enigmatic musical obsession
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A classical mystery - ArtsWest explores Beethoven's enigmatic musical obsession

by Miryam Gordon - SGN A&E Writer

33 VARIATIONS
ARTSWEST
Through May 25


An interesting, almost academic, exploration is being staged at ArtsWest currently: Why did Beethoven write 33 variations on a theme from a very mediocre waltz melody by Anton Diabelli? Moises Kaufman asks that question in 33 Variations, and in so doing he explores not just Beethoven, but a professor delving into him from the present day.

Dr. Katherine Brandt (Jody McCoy) is so intent on finally discovering the reason Beethoven was entranced by this melody that she ignores the devastating illness she has (ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease) to go to Germany and delve into the original archives there. Does that mean she has no feeling for the daughter who wants to spend her waning months with her? Or is she consumed with finishing what she started?

The play jumps back and forth in time, and also introduces us to many of the actual variations by having a wonderful pianist, Katie Koch, play them for us as Dr. Brandt sifts through the paper drafts that represent Beethoven's progress as he wrote the 33 variations. We learn about the money troubles Beethoven faced, as well as his creative way of managing, and we get a sense of his irascible personality.

We also experience his difficulties with hearing loss, as we see Dr. Brandt lose some of her ability to maneuver, as well. There is a clear parallel drawn, though it never quite becomes clear why Dr. Brandt thinks determining 'why' Beethoven did what he did is so important. Then again, academics do that kind of arcane research all the time.

The ensemble for this play, including Allison Standley as the daughter, Mark Tyler Miller as her boyfriend, Matthew Gilbert as the composer, James Lyle as Diabelli, Daniel Stoltenberg as Beethoven's main servant, Schindler, and Ruth McRee as the present day archivist, all bring the play to life beautifully. Ably directed by Christopher Zinovitch, he also creates a versatile set that suggests 18th-century Germany while allowing multiple scene shifts for other locations.

But the key to the whole evening is the constant piano accompaniment and video signage to help us understand the progression of the variations and examples of the themes recreated over and over throughout. This work became inexplicably important to Beethoven in his later years, even as he wrote some of his most celebrated masterpieces.

McCoy also holds forth - and holds attention - as the indomitable Dr. Brandt. However, we do wish she'd pay a little more attention to her beleaguered daughter, who can't quite live up to her mother's high standards. The pain of that family relationship is where most of the small amount of actual drama lies.

Kaufman's play itself is not very clear what his own motivations are in showing this research or in giving us much idea of why Dr. Brandt needs to have this particular illness, but the evening is a lovely reverie and an immersion in a different way of thinking, as well as finding out a lot more about a piece of music you may never even have heard. Ultimately, it's a little treat. For more information, go to www.artswest.org or call (206) 938-0339.

Discuss your opinions with sgncritic@gmail.com or go to www.facebook.com/SeattleTheaterWriters.

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