Variations on a theme

By Tom Helma
From left: Michelle Mountain, David Bendena and Richard McWilliams in \\


Friday, April 12 — As we age, and physical deterioration sets in, there are intense urgent moments where we feel a need for answers to unresolved existential questions, to bring completion to important personal goals before we die.

“33 Variations,” the latest effort from the Purple Rose Theatre Co., brings this phenomenon into focus with a story about Beethoven’s obsession to complete a range of compositions derived from an Anton Diabelli beer hall waltz. The show follows the quest by musicologist Katherine Brandt to understand exactly why this was so incredibly important to him.

Beethoven lovers will immediately embrace the carefully researched, intellectual depth of this production. The rest of us will be content with the emotional complexity of the play.

Once again, Purple Rose Artistic Director Guy Sanville delivers a masterful piece of work from this dense piece of playwriting. Scenes shift effortlessly back and forth through time, providing texture to theme; a choreography of transitions that ebb and flow like waves in the sea.

Vincent Mountain’s set, a well-organized library warehouse of the archival musical folios of Beethoven’s works, is breathtakingly immense, providing a reflective backdrop for the unfolding of the overlapping stories of both Beethoven and his current-era researcher.

At the heart of this play is Brandt, who is suffering from the early stages of motor neuron disease. Michelle Mountain brings a passion and gravitas to this role that evokes both empathy and an abiding sadness as we observe Brandt’s persistence to understand the why of Beethoven’s obsession.

No less powerful is Richard McWilliams’ imposing iconic portrayal of Ludwig van Beethoven, who, throughout the play, displays the rages and frustrations of battling his deteriorating hearing.

The parallels between Beethoven’s struggle with deafness and Brandt’s challenge with ALS disease are amplified in moments where past and present coincide. This is most effective when both characters are on stage simultaneously, leaning on each other for physical and emotional support.

Meanwhile, Brandt’s daughter Clara (Lauren Knox) falls into a relationship with Mike Clark (Michael Brian Ogden), her mother’s attending nurse. This subplot brings a light touch to what otherwise might be an unbearably painful story.

Rarely do featured actors in a play bring as much richness to their roles as do David Bendena and Rhiannon Ragland. Bendana, as Beethoven’s aide, Anton Schindler, uses an extreme formality of spastic movements combined with a verbal irony that is, at times, hilarious. Ragland, as the uber-German Gertrude Ladenburger, mixes a perfectionist no-nonsense brittleness with genuine compassion.

“33 Variations” invites the audience to examine the body of work that consists of our lives, and to explore the extent to which we have or have not fulfilled our life dreams — or our destinies.