The day is full of noise and I am
grateful, it’s full of grace
and light that takes me
up and out. I am serious
again, forsythia bloom early
this year, I am going to New York,
experience of pleasure has never
moved me as much as expectation
of an end to it. Seems real,
is real. Hello.
-Tim Dlugos, untitled
Before I get into minute details of plot and incident and technicality – go see Available Light’s production of Moises Kaufman’s 33 Variations. It’s not here for long, just till next Sunday and if you’ve got any interest in theatre in town whatsoever. It’s one of the most consistently acted, moving productions of a play I’ve seen in town in years – a simple story so beautifully told that I was moved to tears by the time it was over and I have a hard time picturing anyone I know not walking out enjoying it.
Kaufman’s 33 Variations is the an artful braiding of the story of a musicologist, Katherine Brandt, in Bonn researching Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations for what she understands to be her final paper before succumbing to Lou Gehrig’s disease, the story of her daughter torn between helping her and letting her do this, and the story of Beethoven’s composing of said variations.
The stage is hung with era-indeterminate cloth half-obscuring a platform through which you can see a piano and its player; the cloth is also the backdrop for projections, everything from text – announcing which Variation is currently being played/discussed/underpinning the action – to closeups of manuscript paper to character’s faces when the action has them in a specific position where that wouldn’t be visible to the audience. The foreground has a table and a few chairs.
Eleni Papaleonardos directs and does an astonishing job of balancing the little moments with the more grandiose gestures and getting the pacing just right. I used the word braiding earlier but the symmetry in the material can get beautifully messy, more of a tangle, and the moments where simultaneous action in the different periods and locations overlap, even with characters saying the same word at the same time, could’ve been cheap or too easy but it’s built with a subtlety and the choreography of bodies moving is so natural that it has the intended effect, it hits the audience like a thunderbolt: Oh. Of course.
That piano is played by Dave McMahon and he’s the grout in this production. As it should be, everyone is in the shadow of that electric, intense music. Having a piano player instead of recordings not only lets the production use only fragments they want or show Beethoven working through sequences, stumbling or first drafts, but it also provides breath. Another physical voice on stage blending the colors with the actors. To the extent that when the other 7 characters dance near the end, it doesn’t feel like an unevenly matched set for the waltz, the piano player is given his due.
Josie Merkle plays Dr. Katherine Brandt, the afflicted musicologist desperate to get one last thing done, and she’s a marvel. I’d last seen her as a very good Jocasta in an uneven Oedipus Rex but here she soars, mapping out every part of the character as we know it. The journey takes us from her early dismissing of Diabelli’s source waltz as trite and mediocre and trying to really figure out what Beethoven saw in it and ending up at the place of transfiguration. Matt Hermes as Beethoven is always a physical presence even when not on stage, and the energy of his body when he is out is stunning, all the frustration and desire and desperate, searching, ego play out in every bit of his action.
Adam Humphrey is very good as the nerdy, smitten nurse who falls for Brandt’s daughter, Clara, funny and charming when he needs to be and a solid rock, at times delivering exposition in a way that doesn’t feel like an infodump and keeping the audience emotionally invested in what’s going on. Acacia Duncan is first among equals in a cast without any bad parts, she’s luminous, coiled anticipation.
The supporting cast keeps the quality extremely high, from Beethoven’s friend Anton Schindler played by Nate Roderick, Diabelli played by David Tull initially with the broadest comedy possible then slowly given shading, and Emily Bach as Gertrude Ladenburger. Sound and light are always good at Available Light productions, provided here by Dave Wallingford and Carrie Cox, but they have more work to do than usual and it’s fascinating to see a doctor’s visit or the raging currents of tinnitus are implied wholly with sound and light.
A. said this might be the perfect Available Light show, because it’s a crystallization of their overarching obsession about why you make art when the world’s crumbling, when your life is crumbling, and what’s the point of it all. I’d agree with that but what I found even more beautiful here is the academic understanding transfiguration – the derivative work that’s greater because of the greater artist’s hand, but really finds its juice in bringing out all the qualities that were already in the lower-rent art that people danced and drank and fell in love and fought to. It’s a reminder to always work, and always strive, and never settle… but also to keep your eyes and ears open to what real people, not just your fellow nerds/aesthetes, are watching and reading and listening to; you never know when you’ll find that kernel of your next great obsession.
Like Sondheim wrote, “There are prizes all around you if you’re wise enough to see.”