Theater review: 33 Variations

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From the January 19, 2012 edition

Playwright Moises Kaufman tells three interlaced stories in “33 Variations.” Two of those stories — Ludwig van Beethoven’s composition of his “Thirty-Three Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli” and the research of a modern-day musicologist into the creation of that piano work — deal with obsession and debilitation.

Between 1819 and 1823, Beethoven examined every chord and trill of Diabelli’s little dance and managed to illuminate the potential of each one of its moments. Each of those days, Beethoven lost more of his hearing. In our time, scholar Dr. Katherine Brandt travels to Bonn, Germany, to examine Beethoven’s sketches, attempting to illuminate the reason for the composer’s devotion to this seemingly inconsequential waltz. During the trip, her own health deteriorates as her Lou Gehrig’s disease worsens.

Grim as these parallel stories may sound, Available Light Theatre’s production brings out the optimism built into these obsessions as well as the comic romance of the third story, the deepening relationship between Dr. Brandt’s caretaker Mike and her daughter Clara.

Matt Hermes makes an imperious and sympathetic Beethoven. David Tull takes his Diabelli from initial annoyance at Beethoven’s compulsive overwork to awe at his eventual achievement. Josie Merkle is an indomitable Dr. Brandt. As Clara, Acacia Duncan matches and counters her mother’s strength with her own. Adam Humphrey is appropriately awkward and funny as Mike, and pianist Dave McMahon brings Beethoven’s notes to elegant life.

Just as Beethoven played with the little details of a simple waltz, Available Light makes a graceful minuet of Kaufman’s intricate play.

Matt Slaybaugh photo