33 Comments and Observations on 33 Variations by Moisés Kaufman
1. From the first wave of applause as she enters Stage Right, one is aware that one is watching work of and by the crème de la crème of American stage and screen. Ellen Burstyn (Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, The Last Picture Show, Big Love, House of Cards), is some kind of goddess who tends to lift the game of those around her or, in lieu of that, steal the show.
I think I’m having a fan-girl moment: thank god there’s a bar right beside the stage!
She’s also won the Emmy-Oscar-Tony trifecta. Hoorah!
So that’s a thing.
2. The writer, Moisés Kaufman, has been similarly lauded for remarkable work he’s either authored, co-authored or directed, like The Laramie Project, and I Am My Own Wife.
So that’s another thing.
3. And the Australian company members aren’t doing too badly either with AFI and Green Room awards, scholarships and fellowships all round. We’re talking a walk-in wardrobe of trophies between them.
And that’s not even counting Lisa McCune’s 50 Gold Logies.
Maybe not 50.
4. Ellen Burstyn plays a musicologist named Katherine Brandt who has Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and is dying. Burstyn seems fragile, so fragile you worry she’s going to keel over. And you’re worrying about the actor, not the character. She might do better to pitch her escalating degeneration at a slightly slower gradient, at least initially.. ..just one woman’s opinion.
5. Katherine is driven to understanding why Beethoven chose to spend years writing the so-called Diabelli Variations based on a waltz she describes as ‘mediocre’. Years when his already poor health was declining and his deafness became total. She is intent on travelling to the Beethoven Haus in Bonn to consult the ‘conversation books’ Beethoven used from 1818 to communicate.
6. The ‘mediocre’ waltz, was by a music publisher named Diabelli who, in 1819, invited the composers of the day (including an 11 year old Liszt), to contribute a ‘variation’ on his theme, the results to be published as a kind of anthology that would rake in a fortune. Beethoven wrote 33.
7. Diabelli’s theme has been labelled variously as ‘an absurd theme’, ‘mechanical’, ‘unremarkable’ and ‘crapulous’. Beethoven called it ‘a cobbler’s patch’, though he used German words when he voiced this insult which have clearly lost something in translation.
8. Beethoven’s variations are regarded as a work of genius, not fully understood, but brilliant for sure. He wrote them over four years, writing other pieces, like the Missa Solemnis, at the same time. “No other work by Beethoven is so rich in allusion, humor, and parody.”
9. Beethoven’s 33 Variations, known as the Diabelli Variations, take about an hour to perform.
The play takes much longer.
10. Actually, the play’s a bit of a mess. An honourable attempt to play with form in the same way Beethoven did, a formalist exercise if you will. But what you get here is muddy, the idea of contrapuntal forms outweighing the execution: characters are not particularly well drawn so that the actors have to work hard to fill them out, and they’re not always successful. It meanders, and director Gary Abrahams is unable to inject the urgency the dying Katherine and declining Beethoven need to convey.
11. The set (Dann Barber) doesn’t help. It’s ‘presentational’ when you really need to be submerged in the world of scholarship, music, even illness. It’s also pretty vague about where we’re supposed to be. It’s too specific – a stucco looking building with a lot of arches (I’m thinking thinking Dolores del Rio’s home in the Hollywood Hills circa 1927?? A villa in Tuscany? Or Capri? Or Cannes? Somewhere marvellous and Mediterranean that I’ll never see. But definitely not Bonn. Which is in Germany.) and yet not specific enough.
12. There are a lot of doors.
13. There are also a lot of projections.
I quite like projections.
But these projections are on smallish flat screen TVs that are lowered. And raised. And lowered. And raised.
Sometimes the number of the Variation is projected. But not all of them. Which is confusing. Though sometimes you realise they’ve skipped ahead four variations, which is fine.
Sometimes there are so many projection screens, as when Katherine is X-Rayed, that you barely notice the actor quivering in distress below, which makes her redundant.
Then you find yourself fixating on the X-Rays, which you have no expertise in reading, but is that root canal?
14. Katherine has a daughter named Clara (Lisa McCune). Clara is a costume designer working on Hedda Gabler. She’s interested in moving into set design. Once she was in a band. Katherine is irritated at what she sees as Clara’s lack of focus; she worries that her daughter too, is ‘mediocre’. But McCune’s Clara is uptight, controlling, if anything, she seems the intolerant element in the dynamic, but they’re distant, not dysfunctional.
15. And another thing. I know costume designers who want to be set-designers don’t have to be flashy, but I’ve known three types:
*pins and scissors and tape measures all about
*genuinely eccentric and dressing to the beat of their own drum, or snip of their own thread
Lisa McCune is dressed (costume design Chloe Greaves) to look as though she’d never had a design thought in her life; costumes for Hedda Gabler, seriously???
16. Toby Truslove is adorably awkward and convincingly expert as Mike the nerd nurse who falls for Clara.
17. The date scene in which movie seats are pulled out from the massive desk is cute.
18. Never attempt a supposedly sensual sex scene if it’s obvious no-one’s going to unzip their jeans. It just looks weird.
19. As Beethoven, William McInnes is a big shambolic presence and not especially convincing as anything more than a grump. His accent is a bit all-purpose-European and often unintelligible, especially when he yells. Which he is required to do a lot.
20. He does enjoy a lovely moment though when he and Katherine – her illness now moving much faster than had been anticipated – are seated on the piano stool. She leans in towards him deriving comfort. You wish they’d stretched that moment a bit longer.
21. Francis Greenslade as Anton Diabelli is slightly thick, slightly sensitive and very funny.
22. Andre de Vanny as Anton Schindler, Beethoven’s self-styled friend (but really servant), walks the fine line between cartoon and character with precision, with panache. He’s smashing.
23. Helen Morse contributes a nicely abrasive German musicologist Dr Gertrude Ladenburger, her character rather more well-rounded than McCune’s Clara and seeming to enjoy a more genuine relationship with Katherine.
24. Ironically, given her impending doom, Ms Burstyn seems healthier in the second half, even without the walker. Either side of interval she’s at her best giving the Diabelli lectures. I could happily have sat for an hour or two listening to her expostulating (perhaps with a whopping projection of her face behind her) Kaufman’s ideas as all 33 variations played. Her face projected above as she undergoes a medical examination is entrancing.
25. Andrea Katz plays Beethoven’s glorious music beautifully.
26. Andrea Katz’s frock upstages the other costumes.
27. The playing of the Missa Solemnis is very reminiscent of the playing of the Requiem in Amadeus.
28. The contrapuntal dialogue in the first half is nearly exciting.
29. The Kyrie at the end is a bit cringe-making: there wasn’t a wet eye in the house.
30. But if you’ve ever nursed someone or been with someone dying you’ll recognise yourself.
31. If you’ve ever felt mediocre, likewise.
32. This is a play about ideas of mediocrity and ideas of excellence, even (shudder) perfection. In sneering at the ordinary, Katherine fails to recognise its essential beauty. By her final lecture, all that’s changed. Her moment of illumination when Clara insists she likes the despised tune leads Katherine to conclude that Beethoven recognised, in an ordinary little waltz, ‘a world in a grain of sand’ and that, in his Variations, he explores that world. There is a radiance about an idea like that being fully realised. If it happens in the art form you love, you bow down and give thanks. 33 Variations talks about such moments, but fails to deliver them.
33. But that may just be my need for something transcendent rather than mediocre.