33 Variations (Review)

ETC's season opening show is a triumphant look at Beethoven's motives

Sep 4, 2009 at 2:06 pm

Critic's Pick

The creation of art is a fascinating subject, but delving into the mysteries behind what motivates a creator can be infuriating. Such an exploration is both the story of and the fuel that drives Moisés Kaufman’s 33 Variations, which Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati (ETC) has chosen to launch its 24th year.

A 21st-century musicologist, Dr. Katherine Brandt (Amy Warner), strives to understand Beethoven’s decision two centuries earlier to compose — in an apparently obsessive manner — 33 variations for solo piano on a simple waltz conceived by Anton Diabelli, a music publisher. Parallels are drawn between the composer’s loss of hearing and health and Brandt’s own changing life as a victim of Lou Gehrig’s Disease, steadily losing control of her body.

The story shifts between the early 21st and the early 19th century. Characters from each era appear onstage together, and there is both humor and drama. This might sound confusing, but Kaufman’s script skillfully displays the inter-relationships, especially in the artfully written final scene of Act I when all seven characters speak interwoven lines.

Music is present throughout: Scot Woolley sits at a grand piano above the stage and plays many of Beethoven’s variations. In one remarkable scene, he responds as Beethoven (Dennis Parlato) imagines the 24th variation, working it and reworking it. We hear it evolve, change and refine. It’s miraculous demonstration.

[Parlato and Warner are pictured above. Photo by Sandy Underwood.]

Equally engaging is Brian c. Mehring’s set, its walls arrayed with glowing panels of handwritten music.

Much was made of this show’s Broadway debut earlier this year, especially Jane Fonda’s portrait of Dr. Brandt. ETC is offering only the second staging of this Tony Award-nominated work.

Despite Warner’s moving performance in the role Fonda played, it’s more than a star vehicle: It’s a strong ensemble production that will engage audiences from start to finish. 33 Variations is a triumph.

33 VARIATIONS, presented by Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati, continues through Sept. 21. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.