How do you build a theatrical production around an aging music professor suffering from a terminal illness, juxtaposed with the story of the celebrated composer Ludwig van Beethoven’s suffering from a variety of ailments (including hearing loss)?
The two stories merge in a unique bit of theater, “33 Variations” by Moises Kaufman, currently being presented by Waukesha Civic Theatre. This is a marvelous production in so many ways, most notably its staging and the performances of a veteran cast that infuses these stories with power and poignancy, humor and humanness. Dustin Martin is the director.
Raised up and at the center of the stage is a grand piano with the show’s music director, Julie Johnson, at the keyboard. A large screen behind her displays the variation she is playing and other scenes related to the onstage action.
The story begins with Katherine (Beth Perry), a musicologist with ALS who, for her final scholarly presentation, seeks to learn why Beethoven wrote 33 variations to a simple waltz by Anton Diabelli (Carl Liden), a publisher and composer. Diabelli had asked all the notable composers of the time to write a single variation on the theme, which would be represented in a volume of variations he would publish. Reluctant at first, Beethoven went on to produce 33 over a four-year period.
“What was it about this mediocre waltz that so captivated him?” Katherine wonders. To find the answer, Katherine travels across the ocean to Bonn, Germany, the birthplace of Beethoven.
Katherine is not one to settle for mediocrity, as her daughter, Clara (Ruth Arnell), is well aware. Clara has had many jobs, but nothing seems to have stuck.
“I excel at changing careers,” she jokes to her mother. Her mother is not happy, and Clara knows her own lifestyle is unacceptable to her. “When she looks at me, all she sees is failure,” says Clara.
But Clara is about to embark on the most difficult challenge of her life – taking care of her very independent mother, whose body is gradually deteriorating. With the help of her mother’s nurse, Michael (Nicholas Callan Haubner), and Gertie (Paula Garcia), the archivist she meets in Germany, Clara begins to understand who her mother is as Katherine lives out the remainder of her life.
The parallel story is that of Beethoven (Michael Chobanoff), nearing the end of his life but still composing beautiful works. Beethoven’s assistant, Schindler (Cory Klein), must cope with the volatile artist during his fits of rage and irrationality and must find ways to keep them both fiscally afloat.
We see Schindler early on bargaining with Diabelli on a price for his boss to compose the variation, and then the battles he must wage with Diabelli when Beethoven insists on not just one variation, but spends several years to compose 33.
Scenes alternate between Beethoven in his time and Katherine in modern times, but occasionally the two periods come together – and that is when the play is at its most powerful.
The culmination of the first act features all the characters facing their challenges, with the pleas and proclamations rising in allegro fashion to a great crescendo. It is a most effective scene, done so well by this expert cast.
In the second act, Katherine, her disease worsening, continues to dissect Beethoven’s short compositions, called “sketches,” with the help of friend Gertie.
As Katherine excitedly sees and touches the works of the great composer (some stained with soup), she wonders about his motivation. “Is Beethoven transitioning Diabelli’s waltz to its better self while his body is deteriorating?” she asks. At times she thinks Beethoven is making fun of Diabelli, or questions, “What if he did it for the money?”
Beethoven is also on a journey, struggling to understand his tinnitus and other ailments, concluding at one point: “I created music I never could have created if I could hear.”
The production also touches on the volatile times in Vienna, where Beethoven lived. “How can there be freedom or progress when the police hear every word we say?” Beethoven asks.
In the scene in which Johnson plays the finished sketches on the piano, Chobanoff’s Beethoven describes in animated musical terms his rationale for each as he romps across the stage as if his very actions are creating the wonderful sounds. It is a wonderfully dramatic scene wherein Chobanoff captures the culmination of the composer’s incredible creativity.
This is an amazing cast, starting with Perry, who really stretches dramatically. Through her we see Katherine’s single-mindedness and strength as she chooses her own tedious opus to end her life. At one point she mumbles “my tongue has begun to die,” while we watch Beethoven also struggling with his health.
The Katherine-Beethoven stories are wonderful counterpoints, with Beethoven’s being the overpowering one because of the composer’s arrogance and explosive nature, captured so well by Chobanoff.
The love story that develops between Clara and Michael, while rather clichéd, is handled nicely by Arnell and Haubner. As Clara, Arnell mimics her mother’s toughness, but also zeroes in on her character’s vulnerabilities. Haubner treats Clara with a gentleness that softens her hard-shelled character and makes their relationship most appealing.
Garcia gives Gertie a sprightly quality, making the most of several scenes – especially the cafeteria scene – with a delightful comic edge.
Liden and Klein as Diabelli and Schindler, respectively, are solid in their roles, adding appropriate accents to their well-drawn characters.
This show has so many pieces that need to fit perfectly, or the whole story and effect could go out of tune. All aspects here are pitch perfect. Notable is Scott Fudali’s lighting, which puts a golden glow on pianist Johnson and highlights individuals and small groups in different eras, creating effective separation and eliminating the need for set changes.
Johnson plays beautifully as she dips and moves with the master’s works. The piano could have been louder at points, especially during the dramatic playing of the set of variations.
Nonetheless, this is a wonderful bit of theater, a musical and emotional journey that both music lovers and others would enjoy.
If you go
WHO: Waukesha Civic Theatre
WHAT: “33 Variations”
WHEN: Through March 26
WHERE: 264 W. Main St., Waukesha
INFO/TICKETS: 262-547-0708, www.waukeshacivictheatre.org