Monday, April 27, 2009

33 Variations

For me, one of the most brilliant aspects of the film Amadeus is the brief insight it provides into the artistic process—in particular, the scene in which Mozart dictates the Confutatis of his Requiem to Salieri. In historical terms, it's at the very least incredibly unlikely but, within the story, it's exquisite: it illustrates the role of each musical element in a composition—how artists twist and manipulate standard devices in order to create something wholly new. I can't follow all of the details in the dialogue—my knowledge of music theory is rudimentary, at best—but a complete understanding isn't necessary: the scene teaches us, as it teaches Salieri, that genius is the ability to rework the commonplace into the sublime.

Moisés Kaufman's 33 Variations explores this lesson expertly and with great passion on a number of levels. First, literally: the foundation of the play is Beethoven's Diabelli Variations, thirty-three variations for piano on a waltz theme by Anton Diabelli, written between 1819 and 1823. Musicologist, Katherine Brandt (Jane Fonda), has been given an opportunity to examine Beethoven's sketch books in Bonn to look for clues as to why the master drew so much inspiration from a 32-bar piece that most critics consider to be, at best, a trifle. Interrupting Katherine's investigations in the Beethoven archive are contrapuntal scenes in which we see the composer (Zach Grenier), his secretary Anton Schindler (Erik Steele) and Diabelli (Don Amendolia) reinacting episodes from various biographies (most notably Schindler's own unreliable tome). We learn in the first scene of the play, that the monograph Katherine creates from her research will be her last—she has been diagnosed with ALS and has already begun to exhibit symptoms. And, finally, there's the thread of Katherine's strained relationship with her only daughter, Clara (Samantha Mathis).

As if all of these potentially complicated plot points woven into a single play weren't enough, Kaufman has also crafted a play—both in his writing and in his direction—that cleverly reflects the artistic process of composition. The different plots are treated like individual melodies in the larger piece—with their own unique rhythms and tempos—that are modified, expanded or contracted each time they appear. This is most apparent in a scene that occurs just before the end of Act I when the various stories all come to a climax simultaneously and the dialogue in them intertwines—rising, falling and colliding with one another poetically and musically in a way that is truly remarkable. Kaufman's staging of this moment is as effective as his writing—it is as beautiful visually as it is aurally.

Finally, there are the Diabelli Variations themselves, which are (naturally) a constant prescence in 33 Variations. They are superbly played by pianist Diane Walsh and they appear in many different guises throughout the play—to illustrate a point being made by a character, as underscoring for a scene or, in the case of the scene mentioned above, as another voice in the chamber ensemble. Kaufman has highlighted the diversity of the Variations and allowed them to play a mercurial role in the piece—what each character says about the music says more about that individual than it does about the pieces themselves. They remain, throughout, an intriguing and elusive element.

The acting in the production is, across the board, very strong. Jane Fonda does a good job as Katherine—especially in Act II when the ALS begins to take it's toll on her: she embodies the deterioration and makes it work for the stage (a real coup for an actor who hasn't played a Broadway-size house in over 40 years!) Fonda is, obviously, the above-the-title star but Zach Grenier has the plumb role—his Beethoven is obstinate, belligerent, pathetic, cunning, tortured and passionate. From the moment he enters a scene, he completely commands the stage and yet he never seems to overpower his fellow actors; it's one of those amazing performances that live on in the audiences' memories long after the play is over.

It's the best original play I saw on Broadway this year and one of the best productions. I don't know what I can say more than that.

photo by Joan Marcus, 2009

No comments: