By John Quinn
Thanks to the miracle that is the Internet, I’m listening to Ludwig van Beethoven’s “33 Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli,” Op. 120, while I write about Moises Kaufman’s “33 Variations.” To steal a word that recurs in commentary, the music is transcendent. In his variation on the “Variations,” Kaufman has created a drama that is both inspired and inspiring. It celebrates the possibilities that only occur when all hope is gone. In a local theater season which has featured a wealth of plays that are both thoroughly entertaining and intellectually stimulating, The Purple Rose Theatre Company hits another high note.
Beethoven’s massive opus had an odd origin. Music publisher Anton Diabelli, played here in all his egotistical self-confidence by Daniel C. Britt, writes a waltz. He invites 50 of the “greatest composers” to each write a variation on the theme, to be published in a single, sure-to-sell book. Beethoven, an even greater egotist and possible madman, writes not one, but 33 – and takes some four years to do it.
But why so many, when one would do? Was it mercenary? Beethoven always needed money. Was it vanity? Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” comprises only 32 pieces. Is he dissing Diabelli for writing a “clumsy and repetitive” waltz? Present-day musicologist Dr. Katherine Brandt attempts to answer that question by going to primary sources – the Maestro’s sketchbooks and notes. The quest takes her from New York to Bonn, Germany, where the Beethoven collection resides in the care of the no-nonsense Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger (Rhiannon Ragland).
As Kaufman weaves past and present into an ever tighter tapestry, we find parallels between musicologist and composer. Both are emotionally repressed. Katherine is a distant mother to her daughter Clara (Lauren Knox). Ludwig is an insufferable employer to his secretary, Anton Shindler (David Bendena). Both use their work as an emotional pressure valve. Both have the fortitude to, as Beethoven shouts, ” … take fate by the throat and bend it to my will!” And both are running out of time. Beethoven is in ill health and increasingly deaf; Katherine has advanced ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
“33 Variations” is directed by Guy Sanville, something of a maestro himself when it comes to tempo and form. There is an otherworldly feel to the drama, as Sanville’s characters share the stage but not the scenes. This culminates in a remarkable first act finale, where separate conversations in separate centuries resonate in a verbal, contrapuntal septet worthy of a Mozart opera.
The play, however, is not all sturm und drang, and the drama is nicely complimented by a little levity. Of note is the awkward, but growing, relationship between Clara and Mike, one of her mother’s nurses, played by Michael Brian Ogden. Even the plot of “33 Variations” has variations.
While the cast forms the seamless ensemble we’ve come to expect at the Purple Rose, Michelle Mountain as Katherine and Richard McWillams as Beethoven are outstanding. Their characters are two sides of the same coin, and the performances are truly in sync – remarkable, since they share no scenes until (spoiler) late in Act II.
Arnold Schoenberg writes that the “Diabelli Variations,” “in respect of its harmony, deserves to be called the most adventurous work by Beethoven.” He had lost his conventional hearing, yet in his head was music that no one had heard before. His late works changed classical music and all the forms that have followed. As an illustration of the human will’s triumph over adversity, “33 Variations” is an uplifting experience.
The Purple Rose Theatre Company, 137 Park St., Chelsea. Wednesday-Sunday through June 1. 2 hours, 10 minutes. $18.50-42. 734-433-7673. http://www.purplerosetheatre.org