Brilliant indeed, but shrouded in mystery, as scholars have debated for centuries over Beethoven's motives for spending so much effort writing variations on such an inconsequential theme. Was it purely satirical, to parody the source? Was it professional one-upmanship, wanting to out-perform Bach's 32 Goldberg Variations? What inspired this amazing outpouring of invention and innovation?
These questions fuel the inquiry of musicologist Katherine Brandt in Moises Kaufman's latest play, "33 Variations," presented by TheatreWorks in its regional premiere. Kaufman creates parallel lives centuries apart. We see Beethoven (Howard Swain) as he races to compose against illness and growing deafness, while his modern-day counterpart Brandt (Rosina Reynolds) has been diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease, and is determined to solve the mystery of the Diabelli Variations before she succumbs to the disease. A research junket to Bonn becomes an extended stay as she unravels threads of the mystery at the Beethoven archives, assisted by Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger (Marie Shell).
For all her passion for music and Beethoven, Brandt is brittle and reserved, especially with her daughter, Clara (Jennifer Le Blanc), whom she finds unfocused and unmotivated to succeed. Clara is more of a free spirit, less driven, but leaves New York to care for her mother in Germany as the illness progresses, revealing a surprising devotion. She's joined by her newly acquired nurse boyfriend, Mike (Chad Deverman), who provides moral support as well as caretaking expertise.
The cast is rounded out with Diabelli (Michael Gene Sullivan), a man enjoying his role as nurturer/publisher of music celebrities and not ashamed to make his living doing it; and Anton Schindler (Jackson Davis), Beethoven's secretary and later biographer, who adds more questions than answers for posterity with his dubious version of history.
And there is the music, lots of it, definitely a character in its own right. Beethoven's glorious, intricate music is played as demonstration, as an intense accompaniment to the action, as illustration, as mood — most of it played brilliantly by William Liberatore on piano, but augmented with fragments of other Beethoven works in a lovely sound design by Brendan Aanes.
As Beethoven nears completion of his master work (simultaneously completing his Mass and another symphony), and Brandt nears the end of her mortal journey, much is made of transformation and transfiguration, and of finding the world in a moment (or many variations from a paltry few notes). Brandt and Beethoven find peace and acceptance at the heart of their mortal crises, and a kind of immortality in the pure pursuit of their particular passions.
The cast is uniformly superb. Reynolds hits just the right balance, initially aloof and even snobbish, but showing increasing vulnerability and warmth as the disease wears down her body and her defenses. Swain is diabolically good as Beethoven, channeling both the great composer's eccentricity and charm, giving us a delightful study of artistic drive.
Le Blanc brings subtlety and depth to a character that could be rather one-dimensional, and she's partnered well with the amiable and appealing Deverman, in a sweet, slightly goofy romance. Shell is pitch-perfect as Gertie, no-nonsense with a heart of gold, practical but not rule-bound.
Even Davis and Sullivan shine in smaller, somewhat predictable roles, fleshing out their characters with nuance and attitude. It's a rare treat to see such a flawless ensemble on stage.
Kaufman indulges in some pedantic moments that weigh down the action and wax tedious, and there are a couple of scenes that should be excised. He errs on the side of intellect, falling somewhat short of igniting deeper empathy with his characters. But the production overall is beautifully rendered, with terrific production values and outstanding acting.
What: "33 Variations," a Moises Kaufman play with music, presented by TheatreWorks
Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St.
When: Through Oct. 28, with 7:30 p.m. shows Tuesdays and Wednesdays; 8 p.m. shows Thursday through Saturday; 2 p.m. matinees on Saturdays and Sundays; and 7 p.m. shows Sundays
Cost: Tickets are $23-$73.
Info: Go to http://theatreworks.org or call 650-463-1960.