Relationships in the Spaces | “33 Variations” at Actors Co-Op

33 Variations (Actors Co-Op)Almost exactly six years ago, we saw Jane Fonda (FB) in the Los Angeles premier of Moisés Kaufman’s  33 Variations. Last night, we saw the play again, this time in a much smaller venue than the cavernous Ahmanson Theatre (FB) — the intimate Actors Co-op (FB) theatre in Hollywood. In the six years between the productions, changes in our life have caused the play to resonate in a different way.

Back in February 2011, I wrote the following description of the play (actor names have been updated to reference the current production):

33 Variations” is, at its heart, a story of obsession, deterioration, and family. On its surface, this is the story of Dr. Katherine Brandt (Nan McNamara (FB)) and her obsession to figure out why Ludwig van Beethoven (Bruce Ladd (FB)) wrote 33 variations of an inconsequential waltz written by Anton Diabelli (Stephen Rockwell (FB)). This wouldn’t be a problem if Dr. Brandt was healthy; however, she is suffering from ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). Dr. Brandt wants to go to Bonn, Germany, to study Beethoven’s folios in the Beethoven Archives, but her daughter, Clara Brandt (Greyson Chadwick (FB)), wants her to stay, afraid that her condition will deteriorate. Katherine, being headstrong, goes, and becomes immersed in the world of Beethoven, Diabelli, and Beethoven’s friend and assitant, Anton Schindler (John Allee (FB)). She’s aided in this research by Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger (Treva Tegtmeier (FB)). As the play progresses, we see Dr. Brandt’s condition worsen, as she moves from a cane to a walker to a wheelchair. Her daughter, together with the Mike Clark (Brandon Parrish (FB)), a nurse who once treated her mother and has fallen in love with Clara, travel to Bonn to take care of her mother. As the story progresses, we keep flashing back and forth between the present day—where Dr. Brandt’s condition is deteriorating—and the past—where Beethoven is steadily going deaf. This brings forward a number of themes: the effects of a need to be more dependent on others, how the progression of a disease can can bring focus, Ultimately, the theme of the play moves from the surface obsession to the power of transformation: how a study of the littlest pieces can bring out beauty, and how we need to treasure each of those little pieces.

That’s what I wrote then, and it truly is the surface emphasis of the play: noticing the little things, the things that are often expressed in the shadows. For example, Diabelli’s Waltz is originally believed to be inconsequential because it was in the style of popular music of the time — a “beer hall” waltz. The play makes the point that Beethoven was able to see majestic music even in the common popular music of the day, sending the message that there is beauty in everything if one takes the time to look.

Yet something struck me different about the play in this viewing. Since 2011, we’ve had the experience of dealing with a relative (my wife’s mother) who is undergoing another type of deterioration — not neuromuscular as one sees with ALS, but the mental impairment that comes with old age. As such, the relationship portrayed in the show between Clara and her mother (which is paralleled in the relationship between Schindler and Beethoven) touched a different nerve. At the beginning of the play, the relationship was built on old patterns and old expectations. Incidents and expectations colored everything. But by the end of the show the focus had changed to seeing each other for what they really were: for seeing the little things and treasuring the little moments. It also provided insight to the frustrations of the person deteriorating: there is so much they still want to do, so much that time is taking away from them.

Viewing a play is a process of developing variations. The first time you see it, you pick up the surface meaning — the basic enjoyment and message that the playwright wanted you to pick up. You are, in essence, picking up the beer hall waltz. But as you revisit a play, and see it again and again, and study the moments and scenes within the play, you discover the deeper beauty within. You discover hidden meanings and hidden melodies — sometimes, even melodies that the author might not have intended to have in there. The play and its words (which are a form of music) find multiple resonances with us.

Resonances. Multiple messages, multiple voices. A fugue. Near the end of the play, especially as Beethoven is composing a fugue variation, I recalled that there had been a discussion of this play as a fugue. The play takes multiple voices and multiple messages and stories: the relationships between the various characters — Schindler and Beethoven, Schindler and Diabelli, Diabelli and Beethoven, Clara and Katherine, Clara and Mike, Mike and Katherine, Katherine and Gertie, Clara and Gertie, etc. — and harmonizes them together into a fugue of messages, of seeing things in the others. It makes the point of how our lives are a fugue of voices that shape our experiences, and sometimes the deepest message can come from the smallest four notes.

And that’s just the story side. I noticed things on the performance side this time that I hadn’t noticed (or don’t recall noticing) from the Ahmanson days. Partly, this may be due to the size of the venue. Many people believe the best way to see is show is in a gigantic Broadway-size venue, but often that is the worst way — even for those in the Orchestra. Larger venues require large staging and performance, and while that might be good for a large cast musical, it is often poor for a small cast play. As an example of this, I note that the Ahmanson staging included a 4-person non-speaking ensemble. That wasn’t there in this production, which allowed a greater focus on the actors.

Under the direction of Thomas James O’Leary (FB), the performances were top notch. I particularly recall a scene in the first act with Clara (Greyson Chadwick (FB) and Mike (Brandon Parrish (FB)), attending a concert. Their voices were provided by recorded voiceovers, presenting their inner thoughts on a first date. All the meaning was conveyed by the movement and facial expressions of the actors, which were remarkable for their ability to convey the emotion and meaning. There was a similar emoting via facial expression in the scene where Katherine (Nan McNamara (FB)) undergoes some form of scan. There are a series of flashes, each with a different facial expression truly showing the impact of the disease.

I also noticed one other difference from the Ahmanson: sexuality. In my writeup of the Ahmanson production, I noted: “The bravery is also on stage—both in a 74-year old actress having the confidence to do partial nudity onstage, and having the confidence to take on the acting challenge of portrying the deterioration that ALS can do to a body.” Reading that brought the scene back to me: some of the exam scenes had Fonda topless. For whatever reason — the fact that Actors Co-op is a church-based group, the size of the theatre, the desires of the actors — that level of physical exposure was not done. There were certainly points where it could have been done, but the choice was made not to do it. Guess what: It didn’t hurt the play one bit, raising the question of whether Fonda’s partial nudity was truly necessary in that production, or was just gratuitous titillation to bring in an audience. We are conditioned to expect gratuitous sex and violence in movies and TV; has it reached the level of the Broadway stage? Much as I enjoy the display of flesh, it should serve the story and not be there just to be there. I applaud the director for finding a way to tell the story in a more sensitive but equally moving fashion.

The performances from the entire cast were excellent. McNamara did a great job of portraying her relationship with her daughter, and even better portraying the deterioration that came with ALS. Ladd did similarly with Beethoven’s deterioration with his hearing. As one who suffers from Tinnitus, I could well appreciate Beethoven’s frustration at the bouts of the same. The chemistry between Clara and Mike was good, and you could see an equal chemistry form between Beethoven and his friend Schinder, and between Katherine and the archivist Gertrude. Great performances all around.

Music was provided by the on-stage pianist Dylan Price (FB). Understudies for the production are Christian Edsall (FB) [u/s Anton Schindler] and Tannis Hanson (FB) [u/s Clara]. It looks like the understudies will be on the first weekend in March.

33 Variations SetThe production was elegantly adapted for the small stage. Of the Ahmanson production, I wrote: “The primary motif was that of an archival room with shelves and shelves of archive boxes, together with movable screens made up of pages of music. Upon these were occasionally projected movements, scenery, and movements.” This production was unable to do that; instead they used the design of the set you see to the right: four windowed panels with doors between them. These panels could be translucent; the could show archival books. The doors could house projections. On the side were brick walls that slid open to expose archival books; there was also a Murphy bed for one scene behind the books. Credit for this design goes to Nicholas Acciani (FB), who did both the scenic design and the projection design. It was supported by the lighting design of Andrew Schmedake (FB), who used fixtures above to create medical devices and specialized archival lighting. Lori Berg (FB) was the property designer; I particularly noted the actual walkers and powered wheelchairs, as well as all the hand-sewn books. David B. Marling‘s sound design was less focused on amplification and more focused on effects — this was particularly noteworthy during the medical scenes where the illusion of the scanning machinery was created entirely by sound. Vicki Conrad (FB)’s costume design seemed period appropriate to this novice, and (when appropriate) were suitably revealing without being too revealing. Michelle Parrish (FB)’s choreography worked well in the few dance scenes. E. K. Dagenfield (FB)’s efforts as dialect coach were primarily notable in the Tegtmeier’s portrayal of Dr. Gerturde Ladenburger and her clipped accent. Rounding out the credits are: Josie Austin/FB – Assistant Stage Manager, Heather Chesley (FB) – Artistic Chairwoman; David Elzer/Demand PR (FB) – Publicity; Selah Victor (FB) – Production Manager; and Shawna Voragen (FB) – Production Stage Manager. 33 Variations was produced by Thomas Chavira (FB).

33 Variations continues at Actors Co-op (FB) theatre in Hollywood until March 19. Tickets are available through the Actors Co-op Website; discount tickets may be available on Goldstar.

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Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB), the  Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Chromolume Theatre (FB) in the West Adams district, and a mini-subscription at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals).  I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows: The third weekend of February brings Peter Yarrow and Noel Paul Stookey at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza (FB) on Friday, February 17, with seeing Allegiance – A New Musical (recorded on Broadway) at the AMC Promenade on Sun 2/19. The last weekend in February brings Finding Neverland at the Hollywood Pantages (FB). March quiets down a bit — at least as currently scheduled — with the MRJ Man of the Year dinner,  Fun Home at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) at the beginning of the month, and An American in Paris at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) at the end of the month. We may go see Martha, a one-woman play on the life of Martha Graham (a good preparation for our May VPAC show of her dance group), at the Whitefire Theatre (FB) on March 18 — we’re still planning that. April starts with Cats Paw at Actors Co-op (FB) and a concert with Tom Paxton and the DonJuans at McCabes Guitar Shop (FB) (shifting Cats Paws to an afternoon matinee that day). The next day brings the Colburn Orchestra at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB). The next weekend is currently open (and will likely stay that way). Mid-April bringsDoc Severinsen and his Big Band at Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB) on April 13, followed by Animaniacs Live at the La Mirada Performing Arts Center (FB) over the weekend. That will be followed on the penultimate weekend of April with Sister Act at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB). Lastly, looking to May, the schedule shows that it starts with My Bodyguard at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) the first weekend. It continues with Martha Graham Dance and American Music at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB). The third weekend brings the last show of the Actors Co-op (FB) season, Lucky Stiff, at Actors Co-op (FB). May concludes with Hello Again at the Chromolume Theatre (FB). As for June? Three words: Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB). That, barring something spectacular cropping up, should be the first half of 2017.

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-Lemons, Musicals in LA, @ This Stage, Footlights, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Note: Lastly, want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget.

P.S.: Mostly so I can find it later, here’s my predictions of what will go on tour and where they will end up. The Hollywood Pantages (FB) announced their 2017-2018 season (which was the rest of 2018, after Hamilton took over the last 5 months of 2017) on February 7th. You can find my reaction to it here. Now we just need to see what the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) will do.