Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Variations on Life in Music

33 Variations by Moises Kaufman

directed by Nick Bowling
Produced by TimeLine Theatre Company

Music linking lives that intersect with each other is at the heart of this wonderful play from the pen of Moises Kaufman.  The play presents the lives of Dr. Katherine Brandt, a musicologist, her daughter Clara, and a young male nurse with whom Clara falls in love over the course of the play.  They are juxtaposed in space and time with the lives of Beethoven, his secretary Anton Schindler, and his publisher Anton Diabelli.  At the center of the play is a classic piece of music, the Diabelli Variations, that Beethoven wrote from 1819 to 1823.  It is composed of 33 Variations on a waltz by Anton Diabelli, Op. 120, and is commonly known as the Diabelli Variations.   It is one of the supreme compositions for the piano, it often shares the highest honours with J.S. Bach's Goldberg Variations.
Kaufman uses this work as a centerpiece linking thirty-three scenes presenting the lives of the Beethoven scholar, Dr. Brandt and Beethoven as he composes the variations.  The scenes bring to vivid life the living, loving, and dying that is part of human life.  In doing so it shows the way Dr. Brandt overcomes her illness to complete her study of Beethoven just as Beethoven overcomes his own ailments to create the variations that he finds hidden in the simple waltz of Herr Diabelli.  The actions shift from past to present, and built into the play's structure are repetitions, music, singing, and even a fugue.  Kaufman impresses as he presents a play with both classical balance offset by radical transpositions of time and place.   All inspired by the musical centerpiece--Beethoven's great set of variations that are still seen as radical departures from the classical balance of the musical world into which Beethoven was born.   
I attended a performance last Sunday and was impressed with the acting which was superb, especially Janet Ulrich Brooks as Dr. Brandt.  The direction of Nick Bowling must also be commended as his imagination gives him the ability to make the most out of limited space and a spare set.  It is this ability that is demonstrated by Nick and others at TimeLine that I often long for when attending productions at other theaters where the sets overwhelm the action of the play.  TimeLine lets the audience use their own imagination by providing just enough of a set for the actors to soar with the words and action of the play.  That was certainly the case with this play.  While the production was stellar, it was augmented by the imaginative use of lighting and, of course, sections of the Diabelli Variations played impeccably by George LePauw, a gifted professional pianist who serves as the Artistic Director of the Beethoven Festival 2012 held recently in Chicago and produced by the International Beethoven Project.
TimeLine Theatre Company, with this Chicago Premiere production, continues to entertain and amaze audiences with theater that some critics have called better than Broadway.

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