Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Variations on a Theme

The next time you go out for brunch with friends, scan the section of the menu devoted to omelets and scrambles.  If you go to an Italian restaurant for dinner, examine the list of available pasta dishes. If you're ordering a burrito at a taqueria or a crepe at a creperie, check out the various menu options.

What you're looking at are variations on a theme. Whether the basic ingredient is eggs, pasta, or a flour tortilla, the way the menu item is prepared, stuffed, garnished, and plated can create a world of difference. As the old saying goes: "Variety is the spice of life."

The same holds true in the arts. Pick up a recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations, Elgar's Enigma Variations, or Holst's The Planets. Notice anything? They're all related to a common theme, whether it be musical or astronomical.

During Rosina's Act II lesson scene in The Barber of Seville, many a soprano has substituted a florid coloratura showpiece in place of the Rossini's original music. In the following clip taken from a 1976 Live from Lincoln Center telecast of the New York City Opera's production, Beverly Sills has fun with variations on "Ah! vous dirai-je, Maman" (better known as Twinkle Twinkle Little Star).

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A great deal of the creative process is spent chasing after a dream. An artist might struggle to bring a concept to fruition; a playwright might struggle to make a scene come alive. In 33 Variations, which is currently receiving its regional premiere down at TheatreWorks, many characters are obsessed with a missing link in their work. The action in Moisés Kaufman's play bounces back and forth in time. During scenes set in Vienna in 1819 and 1823 the audience encounters the following historical characters:
  • Anton Diabelli (Michael Gene Sullivan), a mediocre composer who is trying to make a living as a music publisher. Diabelli has approached 50 of Vienna's top composers, asking them to write a variation on a simple waltz he himself has composed. Although his waltz is hardly inspired, a book of variations by famous composers could become a best seller.
  • Ludwig von Beethoven (Howard Swain), one of the greatest composers in history whose deafness had led to increasingly erratic behavior. Although Beethoven initially declined to take Diabelli up on his offer, for some seemingly unfathomable reason he has become obsessed with the challenge of writing variations on Diabelli's waltz. Beethoven is often so obsessed that he prioritizes the Diabelli Variations over finishing his great Missa Solemnis (which received its world premiere on May 7, 1824).
  • Anton Schindler (Jackson Davis), Beethoven's close friend, protective secretary, and biographer.
Anton Diabelli (Michael Gene Sullivan) and Beethoven
(Howard Swain) in 33 Variations (Photo by: Tracy Martin)

In the contemporary scenes, the audience encounters the following fictional characters:
  • Dr. Katherine Brandt (Rosina Reynolds), a New York-based musicologist who has been obsessed with Beethoven's 33 Diabelli Variations. After years of lecturing about the great composer, she has finally received clearance to visit the Beethoven House in Bonn (where she can hopefully solve a musicological mystery by going through its archives). A determined researcher who is hardly the touchy-feely type, Katherine is on a tightly-focused cultural mission while in deep denial about her precarious medical condition.
  • Clara (Jennifer LeBlanc), Katherine's daughter who has never had an easy time communicating with her coldly intellectual mother. Having floated from one career to another, Clara has recently designed costumes for a stage production and is now toying with the idea of becoming a set designer.
  • Mike (Chad Deverman), the triage nurse at the clinic where Katherine has received a diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease).  Mike is the kind of awkward straight guy who wouldn't hesitate to hit on a pretty young woman after he's seen her mother naked.
  • Gertrude (Marie Shell), the archivist and caretaker of the library and archives at Beethoven House. Gertrude's aunt recently died from ALS, which makes her more sympathetic to the urgency of Katherine's quest.
Jennifer LeBlanc and Chad Deverman in
33 Variations (Photo by: Tracy Martin)

In the specialized theatrical zone made possible by combining time travel and magical realism with dramatic license, these characters cross paths onstage with varying degrees of success over the course of Kaufman's 33 scenes. As the playwright explains:
"Seeing Beethoven's original manuscripts was almost a religious experience. I'm a very Talmudic writer, and it reminded me of being back in yeshiva. What I loved was how intimate I felt with Beethoven's compositional process. At times, I felt I shouldn't be there because I was looking at something so personal (there are food stains indicative of what he was eating and a lot of water stains), because every so often he would pour cold water on his head... he said it was to reset his thinking.

I knew I wanted to create a play in variations form; variations about obsession and about what happens when everything else in your life is removed from your life. I thought it was just going to be a piece about Beethoven, but when I started working on it, I realized it couldn't be, it had to be something more. This is a play about obsessions and about curiosity. The only reason we're here is because 200 years ago a composer turned his gaze onto 16 bars of music. He became obsessed with these 16 bars. Is there a way in which the artistic act of turning one's gaze intently upon something creates ripples -- unperceivable to artists at times -- that touch people for generations to come? The result of Beethoven's fascination was perhaps the greatest set of variations in the history of piano music. But in addition to the effect that piece of music had, the act of looking itself is what we're exploring. To me, Beethoven's obsession with the work is echoed in Katherine's obsession with Beethoven's decision."
Beethoven (Howard Swain) and Dr. Katherine Brandt (Rosina Reynolds)
in 33 Variations (Photo by: Tracy Martin)

Robert Kelley's direction helps bring into focus the sad irony of each character's situation:
  • Diabelli, who will never have the kind of natural talent that Beethoven enjoys, will become rich from publishing Beethoven's compositions.
  • Beethoven will never have the financial skills or common sense that Diabelli has, but he will become an international hero while few people will even know who Diabelli was.
  • Schindler will always be seen in the shadow of his master (and subsequently be criticized for having destroyed some of Beethoven's journals).
  • Katherine's mind will remain intact as she slowly loses control of her body throughout her dogged pursuit to understand a composer whose body remained highly functional as he lost one of the most valuable parts of his mind: his hearing.
  • Clara, who has never paid much attention to classical music (which was always her mother's thing) will find herself falling in love with Diabelli's waltz.
  • Mike, whose awkwardness in expressing himself offers a sharp contrast to his strong nursing skills, will help Katherine to finally see and appreciate her daughter.
  • Gertrude, who has always been such a strict adherent to rules, will break the law in order to help Katherine reach her goal before she succumbs to ALS.
Perhaps the saddest irony is that, like talent, certain pieces of art demand to speak for themselves in the strangest ways. Despite Moisés Kaufman's life-long passion for Beethoven, 33 Variations is nowhere as compelling as listening to Beethoven's music. As is so often the case, the master's music is far more vital and thrilling than any musicological dissertation (whether written or staged) could ever hope to be.

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