Monday, September 03, 2012

As An Insightful Variation on the Theme of Genius, '33 Variations' Strikes the Right Notes -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

33 Variations
by Moisés Kauffman
TimeLine Theatre Co.
at Stage 773, Chicago
Thru October 21

As this blog conceivably portrays, I am endlessly fascinated by creative genius.

Whether in the realm of art, music, theater, film, architecture, literature, comedy, photography, television and even less obvious realms such as athletics, cooking and technology, exploring and deriving pleasure/enrichment from the creatively-gifted is in large part what gives my life nourishment and meaning.

Although I have seen or read numerous documentaries, biopics, articles and biographies about creators of brilliance, I have rarely found the dissection of genius anywhere near as captivating as the mere delivery of it. My favorite parts of the documentaries I've seen on Bob Dylan, as just one example, are simply when he's shown singing in concert.

Part of the problem, I perceive, with works that try to provide insights on artistic practitioners, is that the inspiration process is relatively impossible to delineate and yet, especially in its abstraction, is truly what separates the great from the common. There is no way to show how, or even why, Lennon & McCartney wrote songs that were better than most; they just did. And for me, just listening to a Beatles song has invariably been more gratifying than perusing any book, article or movie that tries to "explain" the Beatles.

While some biographical movies, documentaries, etc., have certainly been better than others, and many rather worthwhile, by and large I have found the theatrical stage to be the venue through which creative genius has been best explored.

Red, a play about painter Mark Rothko by John Logan, Fela!, a musical about Fela Kuti featuring music by the Nigerian percussionist, Frank's Home, a play about Frank Lloyd Wright by Richard Nelson and Amadeus by Peter Shaffer (though the movie was good, too) are just a few bio-based stage works that I have found satisfying, in part because they--particularly the dramas--have not attempted to paint a comprehensive portrait of their subject, but rather woven a more universal story around it.

Photo Credit: Lara Goetsch
Similarly, 33 Variations, a terrific play by Moisés Kaufman ostensibly about 33 variational compositions Beethoven wrote between 1819-1823 based on a mediocre waltz by a middling composer named Anton Diabelli, works largely because it is just as much about a fictional musicologist and her daughter as it is about the great maestro.

In fact, Katherine Brandt--not Ludwig--is clearly the lead role, one played by Jane Fonda on Broadway in 2009 and quite superbly by Janet Ulrich Brooks at Stage 773, which the TimeLine Theatre Company is using to expand its audience for this show. (TimeLine's own venue is at 615 W. Wellington; Stage 773 is at 1225 W. Belmont, the old Theatre Building).

Katherine is a noted musicologist, fascinated by the riddle of why Beethoven--beset by deafness and in otherwise declining health yet still capable of composing major works such as the Missa Solemnis mass--would even honor the request from Diabelli (more so a music publisher than composer) to create a variation of his waltz, let alone devote four years to producing 33.

Although I enjoy Beethoven's music and found the on-stage renditions of the variations performed by George Depauw to be sublime, I am far from a classical music expert and 33 Variations was the first I've ever heard of the titular compositions. I have to imagine the play's attempts at explaining Beethoven's inspiration and how the variations varied would have much greater resonance for a true aficionado.

Still, even in sharing the focus on Beethoven (well-played by TimeLine stalwart Terry Hamilton) with Katherine, her own debilitating illness, her relationship with daughter Clara (Jessie Fisher) and an evolving romance between Clara and Katherine's nurse, Mike (Ian Paul Custer), 33 Variations did an impressive job in helping me appreciate Beethoven's brilliance, along with his not-so-coincidental tempestuousness.

Photo Credit: Lara Goetsch
Although Diabelli's waltz is seemingly much more historically slight than Velasquez' painting Las Meninas, I was reminded of all the variations--58 in all--of that masterpiece Pablo Picasso painted in 1957. The idea that a genius would be stimulated in such a fashion doesn't seem that odd, and Kaufman's wonderful script provides plausible explanations for Beethoven's undertaking and accomplishment.

In doing so, it captivatingly tells a far more immediate tale about the bond, discomfiture, pride and, at times, overwrought concern among parents and children. The acting is outstanding throughout, and along with the above, I should also cite Michael Kingston as Diabelli, Matthew Krause as Beethoven's servant and biographer Anton Schindler and Juliet Hart as the keeper of Beethoven's archives in Bonn, where Katherine goes to research the maestro's manuscripts.

Leaving you to explore any further details of this play, which I found not only to be yet another excellent production by TimeLine, but quite reasonably priced on HotTix, I enjoyed the message that if one looks, appreciable "genius" can found just as much in our everyday lives as it can in the legacies of transcendent artists.

As such, 33 Variations stands as one of the best plays of recent vintage I've seen over the last year or so, ranking with Tony winners Red and Clybourne Park, and--per the Chicago productions I've seen--far superior to Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage, which beat it out for the 2009 Best Play Tony. In other words, although it is a drama, not a musical, this is an extremely well-composed, wonderfully-orchestrated work of theater. (Although I can't say I picked up on it, it is noteworthy that Kaufman wrote the play in 33 scenes).

1 comment:

Rashkow said...

Seth-I'll bet Jane Fonda was exquisite on B'way as Katherine. Altho Janet U-B was fabulous too.