Moisés Kaufman has established himself as one of the most astute playwrights alive today. A Brazilian, who also identifies as a Jew and a gay may, Kaufman first enjoyed success with his "Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde" before catching fire with the controversial play "The Laramie Project," which detailed the 1998 torture and death of Matthew Shepard, a gay student, in Wyoming.
With the 2009 Broadway premiere of "33 Variations," Kaufman proved his artistry with words, imagery and music by weaving two acts that cross time and culture, exposing obsession and genius, and delighting our senses with the music of Ludwig von Beethoven's "Diabelli Variations."
Directed by Michael Cooper, who hails from Texarkana, the regional premiere of "33 Variations" continues its impressive run at the Contemporary Arts Center as part of a joint project between Southern Repertory and MESA Production Company.
In it we see the last few years of Beethoven's downward spiral into deafness and obsession with a simple waltz. That is contrasted with Katherine Brandt, a modern woman musicologist, who investigates Beethoven just as she begins to battle the effects of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)
Part of the proceeds from the production is going to benefit Team Gleason led by former Saint Steve Gleason, who has been fighting the effects of ALS for several years. Gleason attended the premiere show along with several other ALS victims.
The role of Katherine Brandt, played originally on Broadway by Jane Fonda, is acted with incredible delicacy by Maggie Eldred, an actress breathing life into a character, who is literally dying on stage. Another important aspect of the play is the relationship between Brandt and her daughter Clara, played by Jessie Terrebonne Thompson. The dynamic between the two, underpinning Clara's desire to break free from her indomitable mother, while at the same time rising to the duty of administering to her, is palpable.
Yet there is so much more to "33 Variations" than just the relationship between mother and daughter. The mad genius of Beethoven as portrayed by Phillip Karnell is one of those rare roles where the actor is completely transformed into the character. Karnell's performance is a bit over the top, especially in a key second act scene where he passionately describes the music in his head to the accompaniment of the actual notes. Largely, though, his portrayal succeeds. His voice of reason, Anton Shindler, played by Randy Maggiore, is totally devoted to the composer despite his shoddy treatment as a menial by his master.
Silas Cooper is also on hand to provide the role of Anton Diabelli, the conceited music publisher whose simple waltz eventually inspires Beethoven to heights never before dreamed.
Mike Clark, a nurse whose duty is to his patient Katherine, starts to take a shine to Clara, which creates a conflict of interest. Yet, Mike Harkins, imbues the role with sensitivity and humor and makes us follow his relationship with Clara with more than casual interest.
Also of note is Liann Pattison, a recent Big Easy Award winner for NOCCA Stage's "The Trip to Bountiful." She plays Katherine Brandt's fellow researcher in Bonn, Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger, a character with more than a passing knowledge of the ravages of ALS.
The other character not mentioned is the music of Beethoven. Chia-Hsing Lin, a former instructor at NOCCA, plays many of Beethoven's variations throughout the course of the play. In the second act, there is more music than the first as Beethoven is depicted finishing the work and the disease affecting Katherine Brandt and her daughter as her caretaker begins to take more of a toll. Lin's playing is exquisite and beautifully compliments this production.
Christopher Polson is to be complimented for excellent set designs featuring the actual music sketches Beethoven used. The set designs move and flow as the characters from two different eras move and off the stage during the various scenes of the two-act play. At times all of the characters are speaking the same words, but for different reasons in the past and the present. The dialogue with the music is absolutely riveting.
The production also boasts excellent period and modern costumes by Cecile Casey Covert and beautiful, subtle lighting by Joan Long.
Both MESA Production Company's executive producer Stacey Arton and Southern Rep's artistic director, Aimée Hayes have come up with a truly wonderful show that needs to be seen and heard by music lovers and play goers alike.
"33 Variations" runs Thursday through Saturday nights at 7:30 p.m. at the Contemporary Arts Center, 900 Camp Street. Sunday matinees are at 2:00 p.m. Tickets may be purchased online here. For more information call 504-525-6545.