‘33 Variations’ at Garden Theatre

A play about transformation in a theater on the edge of transformation in a town that's been transformed

‘33 Variations’ at Garden Theatre
Photos by Kristen Wheeler, KHphotographics

Transfiguration (noun): Metamorphosis from an initial ordinary form to an exalted, elevated state. The word can apply to anything from religious ritual to urban renewal. Its aim can be entirely altruistic, an arrogant expression of ability, or somewhere in between. And it is both the subject, and in a larger sense the object, of Moisés Kaufman’s play 33 Variations, which is currently receiving an emotionally engaging area premiere at Winter Garden’s Garden Theatre, thanks to Beth Marshall Presents.

Wolfgang Mozart was immortalized in the popular 1979 play and 1984 film Amadeus, and Johann Sebastian is the subject (if not star) of Itamar Moses’ 2005 comedy Bach at Leipzig. But Kaufman takes a far less conventional tack in bringing Ludwig van Beethoven to modern theater. This 2007 script does show the slow deterioration of Beethoven (Chris Gibson, in a bravura performance) as he obsesses over turning a simple waltz into an epic compilation of 33 variations that revolutionized the form.

However, the wild-maned maestro is not the play’s main subject, but rather a foil for protagonist Katherine Brandt (Peg O’Keef), a modern-day musicologist whose obsession with Beethoven’s work brings her to Germany. There she befriends music archivist Gertie (Janine Papin) and buries herself in Beethoven’s notebooks, trying to find the secret behind his mania before amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (aka Lou Gehrig’s disease) robs her of her ability to work. In each of the interwoven realities, the true conflict is not musical but interpersonal, as the driven leads chafe against the ministrations of their caretakers: Anton Schindler (Stephen Lima), Beethoven’s loyal friend and unreliable biographer; and Brandt’s dilettante daughter Clara (Becky Eck), who travels to Europe in an attempt to reconcile a strained mother-daughter relationship before it’s too late.

In lesser hands, Kaufman’s blend of musically inspired medical melodrama and magical realism could easily crash and burn, but director Aradhana Tiwari strikes a sensitive balance between the parallel storylines, finding deeply human truths in the somewhat underwritten characters with the aid of some exceptional performances. The cast includes some of Central Florida’s finest actors, led by the legendary O’Keef, whose portrayal of a fiercely intelligent and independent woman whose talents are wasted by disease is as fearlessly naked (figuratively and literally) as any I’ve seen her give. The extreme theatricality of Gibson’s half-mad maestro is initially off-putting, with a physicality and vocal quality that seems inspired by Christopher Lloyd’s Uncle Fester and Doc Brown characters, but you can’t help but empathize with the impoverished genius as he rages against the illness that reduces him. Eck’s work is less showy, but equally effective, bridging the emotional gap between the audience and these larger-than-life leads.

Two supporting players also deserve special attention. Musical director Julian Bond plays the titular pieces live on stage with virtuosity worthy of a stand-alone concert; his interplay with Gibson as the composer narrates the creation of his final variations is an exceptional example of the integration of dialogue and music. And lighting designer Amy Hadley (with Marshall, Tiwari and the rest of the tech team) masterfully edited elements of the original production’s video design, precisely mapping the projections onto Tom Mangieri’s multistory scenery to create slickly shifting scene-setting backdrops.

The plot and characters of 33 Variations are compelling, but I was even more intrigued by the larger implication of its theme. For what purpose do we attempt to transfigure something – a piece of music or theater – or someone – a child or a lover? Is it for their benefit or simply for our own aggrandizement? Do we seek to improve in order to illuminate that which we already admire, or do we metamorphosize merely to make fun of a form we find inadequate?

These questions are explicit in the play’s text, but also implicit in this production’s Plant Street venue. Walking along Winter Garden’s charming main drag, which teems with trendy eateries and open-air entertainment, one can’t help but admire the transfiguration wrought by the Roper family on this community, which was in dangerous decline less than a decade ago. Likewise, just as the Roper-led restoration of the Garden Theatre helped revitalize the entire town, producer Beth Marshall has brought a new, edgier energy to the theater with envelope-pushing productions like this and Alice Lost in Wonderland. Garden Theatre has done a great job establishing itself with family-friendly, community-oriented shows, but more works like this one will eventually elevate its appeal to audiences from all over the Central Florida area who are in search of more sophisticated fare.

(33 Variations runs through March 30 at Garden Theatre, 160 W. Plant St., Winter Garden. Tickets and information available at gardentheatre.org)

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