Beethoven made so much more out of Anton Diabelli’s waltz. Red Turnip Theater’s production of 33 Variations has elevated Moises Kaufman’s material much the same way. This is not to say that Kaufman’s material is mediocre, but creative liberties taken by the local staging has turned a rather staid material into an arresting theater experience.
Musicologist Katherine Brandt (played by Shamaine Buencamino) is a woman struck in her prime. Diagnosed with ALS, she chooses her remaining time to make a final discovery: figure out why the brilliant Beethoven was so obsessed with a seemingly mediocre waltz that he ended up composing 33 variations. Having dedicated her life to her work, she is exceptional. This is in stark contrast to her daughter, Clara (Ina Fabregas), who gets more out of life by jumping from one pursuit to another. They differ in emotional availability, too. Where Clara tries to use their remaining time to reconnect, Katherine sees her mortality rate as a deadline to accomplish her final work.
This inverted mother-daughter drama is the central element, but it is not necessarily the most compelling one. The timeline shifts in this story and we go back to the 19th century and meet Beethoven (masterfully portrayed by a perfectly cast Teroy Guzman) nearing the end of his career and mere years before succumbing to his own illnesses. This Beethoven is eccentric, obsessive, and nearly bankrupt. He has alienated everyone except his assistant, Anton Schindler (Rem Zamora). It’s a thankless job, but Mr. Zamora plays him with such humor and heart that he becomes one of the more magnetic characters in the show.
And so the story goes. Katherine, with the help of Gertrude Ladenburger (Roselyn Perez) tries to urgently uncover Beethoven’s motivation. Meanwhile, Clara, in the midst of worrying about her mother and shifting to yet another passion, makes a connection with her mother’s nurse, Mike (Franco Chan). We endure cutesy romcom moments for a few scenes that are adorable as they are needless. Back in history, Beethoven has immersed himself in Diabelli’s (Paolo O’Hara) Waltz. He is obsessed, and no one can pull him out of this obsession. (There is a moment, at the very end of act 1, where time and space are blurred and these three storylines intertwine in a stunning crescendo just before intermission.)
As Katherine’s condition begins to worsen, so does Beethoven’s. Still, they are both single-minded about their goal. Katherine is nowhere near figuring out the answers to her questions and Beethoven has hit a wall with the variations. Clara and Mike are now by Katherine’s side and the story delves deeper into how ALS can affect family dynamics as well as friendships. Katherine, robbed of control over her own body, wishes to regain this control in death. Clara is not happy, but Mike tells her that these moments where Clara cares for her dying mother might be all she gets.
Amidst all these events, Beethoven’s music—his 33 Variations—is not only a constant presence, but a palpable character. This staging takes it a step further by having the Pianist (talented musician Ejay Yatco) act and interact at certain moments in the show. He’s a personification of Beethoven at his prime and watching Mr. Yatco move with his music adds depth to the already multi-layered production.
Red Turnip’s 33 Variations is without a doubt an impressive debut for first-time director Jenny Jamora. With her at the helm, the company has achieved something truly spectacular. Few productions are as inventive and astonishingly creative as this one. It’s a sampling of how impeccable direction, the right casting, the right material, and fearless artistry can come together so well like notes in one of Beethoven’s symphonies. -NF
The show will be running from July 31-August 2, August 14-16, and August 21-23 at Whitespace. Have you seen the show? What did you think?