Obsession. It can be a powerful drive, pulling us forward and deeper into an exploration of a subject, sometimes to the point of ignoring our lives failing around us. But working through the obsession can sometimes transform what wasn’t there into something. I’ve been thinking about these themes since last night, when we went to the Ahmanson Theatre downtown to see Jane Fonda in Moisés Kaufman’s “33 Variations”. One has to say it that way: like it or not, Jane Fonda is the centerpiece and the advertised drawing attraction for this production (which in some sense is a shame), and the emphasis is also placed on the playwrite, perhaps to overcome the classic music stigma.
“33 Variations” is, at its heart, a story of obsession, deterioration, and family. On its surface, this is the story of Dr. Katherine Brandt (Jane Fonda) and her obsession to figure out why Ludwig van Beethoven (Zach Grenier) wrote 33 variations of an inconsequential waltz written by Anton Diabelli (Don Amendolia). 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 (Samantha Mathis), 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 (Grant James Varjas). She’s aided in this research by Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger (Susan Kellermann). 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 (Greg Keller), 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.
As I wrote up the synopsis, I’m exposing what is perhaps the primary weakness of the show: on the surface, this is not a simple plot to describe. It moves back and forth in time. It deals with the progression of the disease. There are multiple threads of multiple relationships to follow. Luckily, the execution and direction (which was by the playwright) draw things together and make the story understandable, and ultimately satisfying. Further, I think the construction of the story is such that the quality could be duplicated with the correct team. However, the construction of the show does parallel the variations themselves: there are times the characters create a fugue with multiple voices speaking at ones occasionally coming together; there are times they are slow and introspective; there are times they use language to waltz with each other; and there’s even a point where they effectively form a mass choir. I think such parallels are more obvious to those familiar with the various forms.
The acting in this is top notch. Let’s deal with the elephant in the room first: Jane Fonda. Whether or not you agree with her politics or her past, she is a powerful, talented, and brave actress. All those aspects come across in this performance. Initially I was unsure how she would do on the stage, and there were moments where she seemed to have line hesitations and odd pauses. But the power and talent come across here, and looking back, that could have been her character. Ms. Fonda does a remarkable job of portraying the ravages of ALS, moving from seemingly health to someone having trouble walking to someone losing the ability to control her muscles and her speech. All of this is in a believable extremely moving performance. 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. I wouldn’t say that her performance makes the show, for the rest of the cast is excellent, but it certainly moves it up a notch.
The remainder of the cast weren’t slouches either. It’s hard to single particular secondary performances out as they were all so good, but I particularly enjoyed Grenier’s Beethoven and Mathis’ Clara. Grenier just seemed to bring the maestro to life, playing the role with both force and humor. Mathis’ Clara captured the right element of vulnerability and self-doubt, giving the sense of a woman who wasn’t succeeding because she never had the confidence in herself. Also strong was Kellermann as Dr. Ladenburger, providing great flashes of German humor. Varjas’ Schindler and Amendolia’s Diabelli were less well developed as actual people, and came across as a bit of a characterure, but that is more likely an aspect of the book. Keller’s Clark was a well-portrayed young man, unsure of how to build the relationship with Clara and help her deal with the deterioration of the mother. The ensemble, which had non-speaking roles, were Nikki Hyde, Scott Barrow, Caitlin O’Connell, and Yvonne Woods Slaten.
[All actors are members of Actors Equity ]
The scenic design by Darek Mclane was interesting. 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 (projection design by Jeff Sugg). This worked well. The costumes by Janice Pytel (with additional cosumes by David C. Woolard) were very effective—provacative at points, demure at others, all effectively conveying the character of the person wearing them. They worked well with the hair and wig designs of Charles Lapointe. David Lander’s lighting design was also effective at conveying the mood. Lastly, the sound design by Andre J. Pluess was what a good sound design should be: unnoticable. In fact, I didn’t even see microphones on most of the actors (and we were sitting in the first row).
Of course, music is an integral part of this show. There is an on-stage (well, off on the side) pianist, Diane Walsh, who provides Beethoven’s music. The choreography of the characters was orchestrated by Daniel Pelzig. Linda Marvel and David Lober were the Production Stage Managers, and Melissa M. Spengler and Susie Walsh served as stage managers.
“33 Variations” continues at the Ahmanson Theatre until March 6. Tickets are available through the Ahmanson Box Office. Our production appeared to be mostly sold out, but it also looks like they had the top balcony closed off. Still, $20 Hottix may still be available through Customer Service.
Upcoming Theatre, Concerts, and Dance: This evening may bring a free improvised musical done by Interact Theatre Company as part of their Reading Series at the NoHo Arts Center. February closes with “Moonlight and Magnolias” at The Colony Theatre on February 26. March is also busy. It begins with Evita at Van Nuys HS on Thursday, March 3 (to see one of the two actresses playing Eva Peron), followed by a Noel Paul Stookey concert at McCabes on March 4. Saturday March 5 is the MRJ Regional Man of the Year dinner at TBH, and Sunday brings “Nunsensations” at the Lyric Theatre in Hollywood. Saturday March 12 sees us back at Van Nuys to see the other actress playing Eva Peron in “Evita”, at Van Nuys High School. Sunday, March 13 is “The Cradle Will Rock” at the Blank Theatre. The weekend of March 19 is currently open, but I’m planning on ticketing “Having It All” at the NoHo Arts Center, once that date shows up on Goldstar. Lastly, March 26 brings “The Diary of Anne Frank” at Repertory East. April will bring the Renaissance Faire on the weekend of April 9. April 16 brings “The Producers” at Cabrillo Music Theatre. April 23rd, which is during Pesach, brings the last show of the current Colony season, “The All Night Strut” at the Colony Theatre. The last weekend of April is being held open (i.e., pending ticketing) for Brian Stokes Mitchell at the new Valley Performing Arts Center. May is just starting to shape up, with the first weekend being held for “God of Carnage” at the Ahmanson Theatre (pending Hottix) and “Cabaret” at REP East on May 28.