Life, Death, Music
33 Variations, directed by Gregory Stieber for the Fort Wayne Civic Theatre and performed at the new Auer Center Arts Lab (across Main Street from the Arts United Center main stage), offers parallels between past and present on the nature of art, ambition, obsession and hope. With equal parts humor and pathos, the fictionalized blending of one of Beethoven’s most brilliant feats of musicianship with a modern story of family, passion and how to live one’s life. Musicologist Katherine Brandt, stricken with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) becomes obsessed with an obsession: Why did Beethoven write 33 variations on a mediocre waltz when one would have sufficed? As she attempts to solve this mystery, everything Dr. Brandt thought she understood about the nature of success, mediocrity, family, friendship and existence itself is turned on its ear as she nears the end of her own life. In 1819 music publisher Anton Diabelli made a proposition to the 50 great musicians of the day: write one variation on a theme (a simple waltz written by Diabelli himself) to be published in one volume of music. Forty-nine composers accepted. The only one to decline was Ludwig van Beethoven who, according to his servant and biographer Anton Schindler, considered the waltz to be a “cobbler’s patch.” However, something changed Beethoven’s mind, and he wrote not one but 33 variations on the theme. Dr. Brandt, despite her rapidly declining health, travels to Bonn, Germany, to study Beethoven’s original sketches, hoping to discover the reason for this extravagance. What she discovers changes her outlook on life. Julie Donnell, a brilliant musician in her own right, brings the perfect blend of strength and stoic vulnerability to the role of Dr. Brandt. Donnell’s delivery of the musicological lectures feel natural from her, and her physicality as Brandt’s body begins to betray itself is nothing short of devastating to watch. Stuart Hepler’s Beethoven is appropriately temperamental and sometimes gleefully difficult. Hepler has some nice moments with his co-stars in scenes between Diabelli and Schindler and in several existential scenes when he and Dr. Brandt “meet.” He even gets to interact with the onstage pianist (Hope Arthur or Kenneth Xiaoling Jiangin in alternating performances) who serves as Beethoven’s musical “voice,” playing the variations as underscoring throughout the entire play. In a long monologue, Beethoven composes the penultimate variation as the onstage pianist plays it. He describes each passage while it is being played (“That’s the wrong tempo. It must be double time … and faster … Allegro … Forte ...”) and gives the audience an exhilarating, albeit brief, lesson in musicology. It may seem dry, reading it on the page, but it compels the listener to hear and understand the music in a far more complete way. James Del Priore’s Diabelli is a flamboyant, self-important popinjay who balances disdain and respect for Beethoven while getting some of the play’s bigger laughs. Paul Faulkner plays Anton Schindler (“Friend of Beethoven”), the composer’s biographer, servant and go-between during the negotiations for the variations. His chemistry with Del Priore and Hepler works very well, and Schindler’s affection for his master is evident through Faulkner’s performance. Eileen Ahlersmeyer and Cody Steele are convincing as the two young lovers. Mike is sweet, patient and understanding. Clara is tough as nails and standoffish, but like her mother, she secretly wants to connect, if only she could let down her emotional barriers. Ahlersmeyer and Steele also have some funny moments as they enter their awkward courtship and struggle to make their relationship work under strained circumstances. Susan Domer is touching and hilarious as Dr. Brandt’s colleague and eventual best friend, Dr. Gertie Ladenburger. Initially stern, the German musicologist occasionally drops her guard, with sometimes unexpected results. The performances – along with Stieber’s clever and intimate staging (including innovative and entertaining scene changes), a simple but multi-purpose set designed by Robert Shoquist, authentic looking props designed by Del Proctor and costumes designed by Schellie Englehart – make 33 Variations an unusual, moving theatre experience that is anything but mediocre.