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'33 Variations' is a concert for the ears, a play for the heart

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'33 Variations' at the Beck Center for the Arts

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CLEVELAND, Ohio – “… for Beethoven, variation form is not only a musical structure, it is a way to reclaim all that is fleeting,” says the character of Dr. Katherine Brandt in the Beck Center for the Arts’ current production of Moisés Kaufman’s “33 Variations”, running now through November 17, 2013 in the Studio Theater.

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33 Variations” is a well-crafted, time-crossing play that doubles as an intimate piano concert of Ludwig van Beethoven’s variations on a simple waltz theme by Anton Diabelli. The story weaves the modern story of musicologist Dr. Katherine Brandt’s (Maryann Nagel) search for musical truth while she battles ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis) with Ludwig van Beethoven’s (Dana Hart) maddening search for the “ending” to his many variations on a seemingly simple piece of music.

Director Sarah May has created a seamless synergy between space and time, bringing the parallels of the main characters’ struggles together. While Kaufman’s script is already a well-crafted melody, May’s ability to stage and bring out each character’s wit and humanity adds the harmony that makes this production its own beautiful song.

Taking place in 1819 and 1823, we meet Ludwig van Beethoven, or “Luigi”, as an already accomplished composer. His secretary, Anton Schindler (Trey Gilpin), is busy cleaning up after him both literally and figuratively. We watch as Beethoven struggles with finances, his impending deafness, and his obsession with the variations on Anton Diabelli’s (Brian Pedaci) waltz. These three actors create a wonderful push-and-pull relationship with each other. Pedaci’s smug Diabelli is both proud and flabbergasted that his friend, the great Beethoven, has taken on his work. He waits and pokes and prods but gets nothing but stall tactics from the composer, leaving poor Schindler in the middle to mediate between the men. Gilpin’s Schindler is a loyal and efficient employee to Beethoven, whom he calls “master” but regards as a friend. Hart’s Beethoven is a soul that is searching for more. He cannot conceive of why he can’t find his ending, and he struggles daily with many health issues. This Viennese trio also captures the heart of Austria amid political unrest and creative brilliance.

Taking place in the present, the quartet of Dr. Katherine Brandt, her daughter Clara Brandt, nurse Mike Clark and librarian Dr. Gertrude “Gertie” Ladenburger bring Beethoven’s struggle into the present. It is a race against time within strained relationships. Nagel’s performance is solid in illustrating the physical breakdown of Dr. Brandt, while showing her continued mental awareness of her work and her struggle to make a connection with her daughter Clara (Debbie Keppler). It is challenge enough for an actor to create a competent physical score for a character with no physical challenges, yet Nagel proficiently navigates Dr. Brandt’s decline from “healthy” to the loss of use of an arm, to a cane, then to a walker and finally an electric wheelchair. All of the “present day” characters deal directly with Dr. Brandt’s ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, which is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord.

The “present” group is composed of cobbled relationships. Keppler’s “wandering” and likeable Clara struggles to find peace with Dr. Brandt’s disappointment in her, and with how to care for her dying mother. As mother and daughter, they’ve gone from a sterile physical relationship to one in which Clara holds and helps her each day. Mary Alice Beck’s knowledgeable and friendly but stern Gertie provides access to the Beethoven archives in Bonn, Germany, and becomes Dr. Brandt’s working companion and confidant. Matt O’Shea’s loveable portrayal of Mike Clark brings the heart to the production, and his charm comes through his awkward but genuine love of Clara.

But the character that brings all worlds together is the eighth cast member, pianist Stuart Raleigh. Mastering the “33 Variations” of Beethoven is no small feat, and Raleigh (upstage center) provides the underscore for us live. The music moves the show forward, yet it doesn’t steal the story. His timing and emotion with each snippet are impressive.

Designer Trad A Burns’ set is black, white and shades of gray. Mimicking the colors of keys on the piano, the set has a classic feel in a modern space, perfect for meshing two different time frames. Some noteable touches are the empty music staffs that run across the walls of the set, as if the walls themselves are just waiting for Beethoven to compose on them. Burns is also the Lighting Designer.

Helping keep the audience in the correct time period and subject matter, the set also has two projection areas that show titles and ambient images, which are designed by Ian Hinz.

The rest of the design team rounds out the show without issue, with Angelina Herin as the Costume Designer, Richard B. Ingraham as the Sound Designer, and Joseph Carmola as the Technical Director. The Stage Manager is Becky Adams and the Assistant Director is Nate Miller.

Overall this witty, lively and fascinating play is one for both the heart and the mind. It will appeal to seasoned musicians as well as to those who aren’t so familiar with the works of Beethoven. It will also appeal to anyone who is human and in search of answers to Life’s great questions.

For more information on ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, visit the ALS Association at http://www.alsa.org/.

For tickets and show information, visit www.beckcenter.org, or call 216-521-2540. “33 Variations” runs through November 17, 2013 in the Studio Theatre.

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