The play “33 Variations” (now playing at the Beck Center for the Arts Studio Theater) is a play about the battle against time and the frailty of the human condition. In 1819, Ludwig van Beethoven was shown by his secretary (and later biographer) Anton Schindler a simple waltz that had been composed by Anton Diabelli who was the publisher of Beethoven’s works at that time.
At first Beethoven angrily crumpled up the music manuscript and tossed it back to his secretary saying that it was “garbage”. Later, he had Schindler retrieve the score and for the next four years worked on writing a total of 33 variations of this decidedly simple waltz. This is where the mystery begins.
Why would one of the greatest composers of all times make such an effort to compose this many variations of an inferior tune? Some suppose it was for the money. By having the variations “in the works” he was perhaps able to touch Diabelli from time to time for much needed cash. Another possibility was the rivalry between Beethoven and Bach (who had written 30 parts to “The Goldberg Variations”). Or perhaps it was the challenge of taking a mediocre waltz and by using his genius turn it into 33 distinct brilliant compositions thus cementing his place in musical history.
Enter Dr. Katherine Brandt, a musicologist of renown who has been diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease). She is determined that in spite of her affliction she will carry out the research on her last project; that is, to discover the reason why Beethoven composed the 33 Variations. At the same time, over two hundred years ago, Beethoven is finding himself growing deaf. His greatest works are still to be realized (his Mass, the 9th Symphony and the 33 Variations). At one point, Beethoven is found under the piano clutching the leg in order to “hear” the music being played. Time is running out for both protagonists of the play.
Dr. Brandt decides to travel to Bonn, Germany, despite the protestations of her middle age daughter, Clara (who Dr. Brandt feels is fiddling away her life moving from career to career…actress to costume designer to set designer). Arriving at the Library that houses the largest collection of Beethoven writings and music manuscripts, she is paired with Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger who in typical German fashion sees Katherine as a nuisance. Gertrude soon discovers Katherine’s passion for music plus her courage of still working as her body begins to fail her. Together they pore over the many clues left behind by Beethoven, Anton Diabelli and Anton Schindler in trying to reach a solution to the puzzle.
Clara and Mike (Katherine’s nurse from the states who has begun a relationship with Clara) arrive in Germany and try to help Dr. Brandt with her physical therapy and living requirements as her body begins to give up and she is forced into a wheel chair. As time is running out for both Beethoven (who is now completely deaf) and Dr. Brandt (who can barely speak) Katherine and Gertrude make a discovery of an error in Beethoven’s biography (written by Schindler) that may be the clue needed to solve the mystery.
Dr. Brandt suffers a debilitating attack and is rushed to the hospital. The final scene has Clara speaking at the conference that her mother was to attend as Katherine and Beethoven emerge from the shadows and the plaintive waltz of the 33rd variation is played with everyone waltzing on stage…fade to black.
Spoiler Alert: Is the question ever answered as to why Beethoven wrote 33 Variations? No, but that is not the reason to see the play. See the play for the wonderful piano playing, the reuniting of mother and daughter, for two middle age persons (Clara and Mike) able to find love in spite of themselves, for Beethoven’s struggles to continue composing and for the courage of striving to finish what one has started in spite of seemingly insurmountable odds.
The play is brilliantly acted by a great cast. Maryann Nagel* as Dr. Katherine Brandt is remarkable as you witness the debilitating effects of the disease on her body even though her mind remains sharp to the end. Debbie Keppler as her daughter Clara Brandt brings a balance of haughtiness and concern necessary for the role. Matt O’Shea as Mike Clark shows medical professionalism and naivety at the same time. Dana Hart* plays Beethoven very large and believable. He is the center of attention and for good reason. Brian Pedaci as Anton Diabelli is the perfect foil for both Beethoven and Schindler as he tries to simply get new works to publish in order to keep his publishing business afloat. Mary Alice Beck is a delight as Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger not only in accent but in mannerisms also. Trey Gilpin as Anton Schindler is well cast as the hapless secretary who is driven to serve his master no matter what. Stuart Raleigh is wonderful as the pianist who is called upon to play snippets of the variations at odd spaces of time and does so with complete professionalism. It is a joy to listen to him.
*Actor appears courtesy of the Actors’ Equity Association (AEA), the union of actors and stage managers.
Shooting From The Lip (My Last Words): The Beck Center for the Arts production of “33 Variations” is a splendid mix of classical music, drama and mystery that catches hold of your imagination. While not designed to solve the mystery, it gives enough clues for you to garner your own opinion on the subject.
Sarah May, director; Scott Spence, Artistic Director; Becky Adams, Stage Manager; Trad A. Burns, Scenic and Lighting Designer; Ian Hinz, Projection Designer; Angelina Herin, Costume Designer; Richard B. Ingraham, Sound Designer; Caitlin Elizabeth Reilly, Choreographer; Tom Frattare, Dramaturg; Nate Miller, Assistant Stage Manager; Dr. Erik Pioro, ALS Consultant; Lisa Bruening, ALS Associate Care Services; Dr. Richard Lederman, Neurology Consultant; Dr. Robert Katz, Otolaryngologist; Dr. Andrew Cluts, Physical Therapy Consultant; Joseph Carmola, Technical Director; Dan Folino, Technical Assistant; Sarah Siertle, Scenic Artist and Shawn Delaney, Electrician.
Post-show talks with experts from the medical and music communities will follow performances on Saturday, October 26 and Friday, November 8. The panelists include leading interpreters of Beethoven, renowned pianists, and experts from Cleveland Clinic who will discuss the effects of ALS and hearing loss. The list of panelists and topics can be found at beckcenter.org.
Tickets for33 Variations are $29 for adults, $26 for seniors (65 and older), $12 for students (with valid I.D.), and $10 for children (12 and under). An additional $3 service fee per ticket is applied at the time of purchase. Group discounts (13 or more) are available. Purchase tickets online at beckcenter.org or call Customer Service at 216.521.2540, ext. 10. Beck Center for the Arts is located at 17801 Detroit Avenue in Lakewood, just ten minutes west of downtown Cleveland. Free onsite parking is available.
Presented through special arrangement with Dramatists Play Service, Inc. this production of 33 Variations is generously funded by Cuyahoga County residents through Cuyahoga Arts and Culture and the Ohio Arts Council.
Celebrating its 80th anniversary, Beck Center for the Arts is a not-for-profit 501(c)3 organization that offers professional theater productions on two stages, arts education programming in dance, music, theater, visual arts, early childhood, and creative arts therapies for special needs students, and free gallery exhibits featuring local, regional, and international artists.