33 variations

most people seated in the orchestra section of the eugene o’neill theater (april 4th, matinee performance) probably knew that i was a jane fonda fan. when i turned to my neighbor, a middle aged woman with forbiddingly short hair, and asked her if she liked fonda, she could only manage a tentative “yes”. but she added with a smile: “you clearly do”. “i’m not usually like this”, i said to my friend sarita, by way of explanation. and that is the whole truth. i have seen many remarkable actors on broadway deliver extraordinary performances, but jane fonda is different. i have admired her as an actor, an activist, a feminist, a fitness guru, a woman, for as long as i can remember. i was enthused.

happily, “33 variations” turned out to be more than a mere platform for jane fonda’s considerable talent. the play is a perfectly orchestrated production of multi-media art mixed with a clever, multi-layered script.

intertwined stories: beethoven becomes obsessed with an ordinary waltz written by his music publisher anton diabelli, and devotes much of his precious time to composing not one or two but 33 variations on its theme. dr katherine brandt (jane fonda) is an accomplished musicologist obsessed with beethoven’s variations. she also has lou gehrig’s disease and is struggling to complete her monogram while losing control over her body. her daughter clara is obsessed with her mother and wants desperately to connect to her. over the course of the play, she becomes involved in a relationship with mike, her mother’s nurse. it starts off awkwardly but develops into something meaningful.

multi-media theater: projections of beethoven’s sketches (drafts and elaborations) become a luminous backdrop. moveable screens fashioned from fluttering sheets of music are used to transform the stage – they are lit as if by countless candles, twirled to create dynamic transitions, images are projected onto them while they slide back and forth and we are treated to the creation of a fragmented, impressionistic painting.

imagine this: the stage is framed by shelves containing neatly ordered boxes of archives, all magically lit. beethoven stands center stage. his hair is disheveled. he is barefoot, in his nightgown. he looks pale, possessed. with a crooked hand he draws notes in the air. he composes fitfully, changing his mind, altering, deleting, commenting. and as he articulates music on stage we actually hear what he is creating. live piano music is an essential element of the play and we are offered the aural dimension of every visual, every spoken word.

the core of the play: brandt is fascinated by beethoven’s attention to a mediocre waltz. she goes through several hypotheses. he wanted to show us what he could do with a trivial composition, he is mocking it, being ironic. he wanted to elevate the ordinary and “transfigure” it into the sublime. did he just do it for money? did he want to one-up bach and his 32 goldberg variations? parallels between brandt and beethoven are apparent – their passion for their work, their tenacity in the face of debilitating illness, their dogged pursuit of perfection. they are alter egos. as she lies dying on her hospital bed, he appears to her. she jokes with him. she was hoping not to hallucinate – not fitting for a scholar. he shoots back: it could have been worse, what if it had been tchaikovsky?

but there are more subtle analogies. as brandt remains focused on the inferiority of diabelli’s work, she is incapable of fully understanding beethoven’s motives. in much the same way she thinks of her daughter as a second-rate waltz, an assumption that has doomed their relationship. as brandt begins to warm to her daughter (her deteriorating health has forced a level of proximity), her mind begins to open. she sees beethoven’s endeavor in a new light. all the pieces fall into place. beethoven is not mocking diabelli, he is slowing down time, he is exploring the potential that exists in every moment of the waltz. by claiming every fleeting moment, he is allowing us to savor it fully, slowly, bit by bit.

the parallel with life is crystal clear. every moment, every gesture, every happenstance is pregnant with significance, if we could only stop and partake of all its glory.

the play was written and directed by moises kaufman, set design by derek mclane, lighting by david lander, projection design by jeff sugg, and selections from beethoven’s diabelli variations were performed live by diane walsh.

fonda pores over beethoven’s sketches in “33 variations”

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