Though it uses Beethoven’s life and music as a source of fuel, this play isn’t really about loving the composer’s work or understanding the rhetoric of minuets and marches and chord changes. Instead, this Tony-nominated play by Moisés Kaufman develops memorable relationships: between lovers, between mothers and daughters, and especially between artists and their audiences.
“I have to understand why a genius became obsessed with mediocrity!” exclaims Katherine Brandt, played by Emma McQueen. Throughout the play, she becomes immersed in a search for answers about Beethoven’s long and arduous work with Diabelli’s waltz. Considered commonplace by McQueen’s present-day musicologist, the waltz occupied the great composer’s life for a handful of years, resulting in a set of pieces that revolutionized the form of the classical variation.
The play deftly weaves together the lives of Katherine and Beethoven on multiple levels. Katherine, diagnosed with ALS, battles her increasingly fragile physical condition with an unwavering determination to complete her musical research in Bonn, Germany. Simultaneously, scenes are staged from Beethoven’s life involving his desperation as he goes deaf to discover all of the melodic variations lurking beneath the surface of a simple waltz.
Katherine’s frayed relationship with her daughter, Clara (played by Joy Ross-Jones), complicates this knot of intellectual ambition. “I fear she will never really be anything,” says Katherine. Their strained interaction is pushed to its limit by the mother’s willingness to push others away in order to grow closer to her life’s work. Complicated, too, is the fact that Clara’s relationship with her new boyfriend, Mike (Nir Guzinski) is sparked by his role as her mother’s nurse, who must guide her through an incurable illness.
In the midst of sometimes-dissonant scenes occurring in different places and different centuries, Ian Baird, the pianist playing live and center-stage, subtly grounds the story. Self-awareness enters the performance in a lovely sequence where Beethoven confronts the musician while passionately rooted in the process of composing the very piece being played.
Stephanie McKenna’s performance as Beethoven is surprising for its ability to toggle between his strange and hilarious quirks and the oppressively heavy weight he carries as a mind lonely in its mad brilliance. The effect of a woman playing this role is one that deepens the relationship between the composer and Katherine. Both yearn to accomplish something that has never before been accomplished and to reveal to the world new freedoms and new knowledge. The scenes of their direct interaction resonate as a confluence of powerful wills that remain attached to incredibly vulnerable people.
To sink into the emotional lives of these people, to enjoy music in a new way, and especially to discover, as Beethoven did, more than you thought possible, go see 33 Variations at the Théâtre Paradoxe from May 14th-24th. Tickets are available at www.theatreparadoxe.com.