SALT LAKE CITY — Why did Ludwig Von Beethoven devote four years of his diminishing life writing 33 variations of a mediocre waltz? This question has remained largely a mystery among classical music scholars. Silver Summit’s production of Moises Kaufman’s 33 Variations attempts to answer this question through musicologist, Katherine Brandt (Anne Cullimore Decker). The play also explores the creative process behind Beethoven’s (Ron Frederickson) “Diabelli Variations” and meaning behind why Beethoven was compelled to write thirty-three distinct variations on a simple theme by an insignificant music publisher named Anton Diabelli (Aaron Buckner).
The play creatively intertwines the modern day story of Katherine Brandt with Beethoven’s time, switching back and forth between the two. However, at certain key points in the play, characters from both time periods appear on stage to deliver lines simultaneously, emphasizing the parallels between the both sets of characters. Lines and scenes overlap and come together like notes on a page of a musical score. This convention is enhanced through the live accompaniment of Beethoven’s compositions provided by the talented Anne Puzey on a grand piano.
The progression of Katherine’s Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis disease (commonly referred to as ALS) and her relationship with her daughter are also modern day themes, and Kauffman uses the various 33 musical variations to underscore the feelings and themes represented in each scene. This is most notable in scenes between Katherine and her daughter Clara (Michele Rideout), though also between Clara and Mike (Kit Anderton). It is also fascinating to watch the progression of Katherine’s disease parallel Beethoven’s and attempts at coping with deafness.
The acting was strong across the board, with notable performances by Decker Frederickson. Decker’s portrayal of Brandt’s progression of ALS was believable and emotional as she deals with and struggles with the effects of ALS and the eventual loss of control of her body. Some of the most enjoyable scenes were between her and Dr. Gertrude Ladenberger (Betsy West) who create a friendship based on their obsession with Beethoven. West, as the eccentric friend, brings much humor to her scenes as an uptight and standoffish curator; though just as Beethoven’s variations progress, so does Gertrude’s relationship with Brandt. Ladenberger becomes a kinder person and loyal friend to Brandt and she stays by her side until Brandt’s final death.
Ron Frederickson as Beethoven, demonstrates his seasoned talents in this role. His subtle mannerisms, his ability to shift emotions at any moment (often within the same beat), made him intriguing to watch in every scene. One of the final scenes where Brandt and Beethoven converse on Brandt’s death bed was particularly poignant.
Michele Rideout as Clara successfully portrays Brandt’s quirky daughter who struggles to have a relationship with her mother largely due to her inabilities to measure up to her mother’s high standards and expectations. During her mother’s check up, a male nurse named Mike Clark (Kit Anderton) falls for her. Anderton successfully creates a simple, but kind, man that is able to help Clara see what a great person she is and develop a relationship with her deteriorating mother. Clara and Mike find great chemistry with each other, such as in the hysterical scene where they are on their first date at a symphony. The entire scene was done as voice-overs, revealing the inner thoughts of these two middle-aged adults who became like teenagers full of awkwardness and insecurities in their efforts to impress one another. The scene where Clara and Mike together help Brandt with physical therapy was very touching as the relationship between Clara and her mother begins to heal; now for the first time Dr. Brandt needs Clara to help her do basic things she can no longer do for herself.
The directing by Jesse Peery is kept the scenes focused and the transitions between the two time periods were flawless. Peery also helped the actors to deliver believable performances. However, I was occasionally confused with the use of the lobby entrance by actors. I suppose intended to create variety, but I found it unclear and distracting. There were also some inconsistencies in the world of play, such as when props or objects were used literally and when they were pantomimed or indicated. Mixed conventions such as this added confusion and either all props should be pantomimed or projected, or all props needed to be literal in order for viewers to understand the world they were in.
The set was created through projections (under the design of Mikal Troy Klee) on white flats and this generally worked well and established time and place within the constraints of the Leonardo; and the lighting (under the design of Gamyr Worf) was especially well done and helped set the mood for each scene and focus the action on just the right level.
I strongly recommend this production. The chance to see Decker and Frederickson in their perspective roles is truly a treat. The script has kept me thinking for days and serves as a reminder to appreciate what you have here and now and not to wait to fix relationships.