Smile Politely

33 Variations hits both high and low notes

33 Variations by Moisés Kaufman (The Laramie Project), the latest show being performed at The Station Theatre, tells two parallel — and sometimes intersecting — stories: the story of Ludwig van Beethoven’s obsession with Anton Diabelli’s waltz and the story of Dr. Katherine Brandt, a character of Kaufman’s imagination who suffers from ALS (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), complicating her plans to travel and complete her monograph on the reason for Beethoven’s interest in the waltz. 33 Variations, which was workshopped at the University of Illinois and influenced by Musicology professor William Kinderman, has since garnered recognition at the Tony Awards and has been performed across the globe. 

Upon walking into the Station Theatre playing space, one first notices the texture of the scenic painting and the expressionistic placement of papers across the set. This is the first in a series of elements that will constitute a stylistic mixed bag. For instance, I believe the incongruent “circle” of papers on the center wall does a bit of a disservice to the intended symmetry of the scenic design and threatens the overall aesthetic. The set dressing does succeed in communicating that the play ventures through several different time periods, yet often this leaves the small stage too crowded for a company of 8 — plus a grand piano center stage. On the theme of design, the costuming (by cast member — and Parkland Theatre costumer — Malia Andrus and director Thom Schnarre) goes for both historical and modern characterizations with eye-catching but mixed results. Dr. Katherine Brandt (Chris Taber) is blessed with attire that is both flattering and realistic, while the clothes of Brandt’s daugter, Clara (played by Jessica Miller, pictured at right) seem to complement neither the character nor the actress.

The play begins with the Pianist (Stephanie Swearingen) entering the space, taking a bow to applause, and beginning to play. This effort seems pointed at making the audience feel poised for a concert; unfortunately, it is the only production element that attempts to engage the audience in the space in a new way. Other elements are less satisfying. For example, one of the clumsier bits of the staging, to me, is the handling of the Beethoven-Diabelli manuscripts, for which all that is apparently necessary to handle the nearly 200-year-old papers is a pair of white gloves. On the flip side, the most effectively staged moment of the show utilizes projections and lights exceedingly well to deliver a touching beat wherein Dr. Brandt attempts to reconcile with her worsening condition, aided by memories of her past and by Beethoven himself (played by Randy Offner).

Standouts in this cast include Christopher Terrell (pictured above) in the role of Mike Clark, whose comedic timing and physical work charm the audience; Chris Taber (below, right), who gives a passionate performance both listening and responding honestly to those around her; and Malia Andrus (below, left) in the role of Dr. Gertie Ladenburger, who allows herself to be affected by the circumstances, showcasing a clear character arc.

These high points make it easier to handle some of the lower points. Among them, a more concise effort could have been made to coordinate the many accents attempted in the show, which, in some instances, are barely recognizable as German. The production’s two largest flaws, however, are its pace (for, at the close of the first act, it felt as though the production could have ended), and some actors’ inability to look at their fellow actors (perhaps for fear of being thrown off of their planned reactions?).

Despite these shortcomings, the Station Theatre’s production of 33 Variations is, overall, both educational and, at times, empathetic. While not a perfect production, it does tell an engaging story, and (as evidenced by the photos by SP’s Alisa Greene) there are some truly striking images. Anyone who is involved in the study of music — or who is a devotee of Moises Kaufman’s work — should be sure to catch it.

The company continues performances on January 28th, and the show will run through February 7th. Performances are at 8 p.m. (with the exception of one Super Bowl Sunday matinee at 2 p.m.). Tickets are $10 on Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday, and are $15 on Friday and Saturday.

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Photos by Alisa Greene.

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