By Jordan Wright
“33 Variations,” playing at The Little Theatre of Alexandria, takes the audience on an intellectual exercise, meditating on Ludwig van Beethoven’s intent when he composed 33 variations on his music publisher’s mediocre waltz.
Dr. Katherine Brandt (Sarah Holt) explores the cerebral territory of Beethoven’s sketches and gives us a window into the soul of the maestro.
Playwright Moisés Kaufman’s storyline jumps back and forth from the early 19th century in Vienna, as Beethoven descends into deafness and ill health, to present-day New York and later Bonn, Germany, where Brandt’s research centers on the composer.
This early period in Vienna, where Beethoven (Elliott Bales) lived with his assistant Anton Schindler (Ken Gaul), is counterbalanced by the present-day story of Brandt and her relationship with her daughter, Clara (Rebecca Phillips), and Clara’s boyfriend, Mike Clark (Matt Baughman).
Paralleling that, Brandt too is dying after having been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease. Against the wishes of her doctor, she departs New York for Bonn to study Beethoven’s musical scripts under the tutelage of Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger (Melanie Bates).
“Here be dragons,” she exclaims, defining the risky proposition. But she is soon joined by Clara and Mike, who care for her as she weakens.
For a man that seeks “freedom and progress” and considers himself “an instrument of God,” it is a tumultuous time to live in Vienna, which is in a police state. His contemporaries — Mozart, Hayden, Liszt and Schubert — are the reigning classical music luminaries of their time and competition among the artists is fierce. It is under this shadow, and with failing health and little money, that Beethoven is pressured to compose the variations for profit.
Soon he becomes obsessed with the waltz, and its first four notes compel him to write more complicated and spectacular versions. Anton Diabelli (David Rampy) is the impatient publisher, urging — then threatening — Beethoven to complete his opus.
As Brandt endeavors to intuit Beethoven’s reason for creating these works, she reveals much about herself, self-important and callously indifferent, and her rocky relationship with her capricious yet devoted daughter, Clara.
It’s an exciting moment in the theater when the audience exits in a daze from the impact of such an emotionally charged tale. Rave reviews come in from all sides. A standing ovation and thunderous applause greeted the final moments of a play that is moving and breathtakingly performed.
How do you credit everyone in a review? Let’s begin with the actors. Holt carves a sharp and moving portrait of the dying woman, a pedant with little care for anyone or anything beyond her work. Her character is contrasted by the charm and adorableness of Phillips and Baughman, whose affectionate and hilarious interplay as the young lovers is so palpable that the audience roots for their love to succeed.
Counter that with the mad genius of Bales’ Beethoven. It is the second time I have been awestruck by Bales in the past few months (most recently in “The Drawer Boy” at Port City Playhouse in February).
The play is beautifully directed by Joanna Henry, accentuated with lighting from the team of Ken and Patti Crowley, who have created an atmosphere both modern and mood-setting. Special credit goes to Matt Jeffrey as the onstage pianist, who gives a stellar rendition of excerpts from all 33 of the variations.
“33 Variations” runs through May 18 at The Little Theatre of Alexandria, 600 Wolfe St. For tickets and information, call the box office at 703-683-0496 or visit www.thelittletheatre.com.