Reviewed by Carolyn M. Gillespie
Vertigo Theatrics laid out rich dramatic fare along side its buffet tables at the Historic Masonic Temple in Flint last night with a run at Moises Kaufman’s challenging work, 33 Variations. Kaufman and his Tectonic Theatre Company are famously responsible for developing the Laramie Project, and Kaufman directed the stellar Broadway production of the one hander, I Am My Own Wife. 33 Variations had a limited New York run starring Jane Fonda as Dr. Katherine Brandt, a musicologist afflicted with ALS (commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease), who despite her progressively debilitating condition, persists in her research into the mystery of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations by traveling to Bonn against the wishes of her less-driven daughter. Her finding – that Beethoven transcends a mundane Diabelli waltz by honoring each phrase and moment in it with attention – is a life lesson with powerful resonance.
Though the Vertigo company struggled to find the right key for their opening performance, they are to be applauded for attempting to realize such a complex work. The text feels a bit like a mash-up of Amadeus, Wit, Arcadia, and Angels in America with one leg in 19th century Europe and the other in the present. There is the valiant, obsessive, dying heroine, the hallucinatory and simultaneous scenes that transcend time, and, of course, the wash of glorious music that ties all the elements together. Susan Storm Garza gives an effective, understated performance as the doomed researcher. Her opening and closing monologues are gems, and she handles the physical deterioration of the character convincingly. Dominique Brown plays her daughter with grounded concern and resentment, and Tony Snider is pleasant as the nurse/boy friend who helps us through the medical maze that ALS poses. On the European front, inconsistent dialect work was a major distraction. Benjamin J. Segal as the Austro-Italian publisher and minor composer Anton Diabelli chose no dialect at all. His strong voice and presence provided clarity in the sometimes confusing period scenes. Gil Hall was earnest as Anton Schindler, Beethoven’s assistant and biographer. Jennifer Winans created a staunch and unsentimental characterization of the German archivist who assists Dr. Brandt both in her research and in the management of the practical aspects of her condition. Ted Valley as Beethoven has a mountain to climb and doesn’t quite have the necessary climbing gear. He is burdened with an unfortunate white wig and a dialect that migrates around the Mediterranean. Nonetheless, he knows the scale of what is required and sallies forth boldly.
The biggest challenges the production faces, given the general competence of its players, are the technical ones. Each of the 33 variations has its own scene – and the number of the variation is variously projected on a central scrim/projection screen. Contemporary playwriting compels the director and his team to solve the multiple scene shifts. The Vertigo production attempts to replicate the Broadway production’s use of projections to set locations, and provide visuals of the Beethoven manuscripts and Brandt’s x-rays, etc. Given the choice made to go for technological solutions to the structural complexity, director Martin Jennings has attempted to orchestrate these multiple elements with patchy success.
Technical wizard Matt Morgan and lighting designer Scott Griffus make a valiant effort here, as do the two designated scene shifters Kevin Biles and Beth Proffer, but they simply cannot manage the task in the Masonic’s tiny space with the handful of instruments available to them. The ends of the scenes lack punch, faces are sacrificed to projections, and the momentum-ending scene changes keep coming – 33 times. The occasions when the technology does work reveal the promise of this approach – when Dr. Brandt pores over the Beethoven notebooks, for example, and we, the audience, get to see those pages on the screen; or when we see the dizzying montage of x-rays that mark Brandt’s descent into the final stages of her condition.
Vertigo Theatrics is to be commended for attempting to bring this big, contemporary drama to its audience at a time when many companies are opting for more typical dinner theatre fare. Risk is a significant element of growth, and growing pains are part of the package. Not to grow is to become stagnant. There is no danger of that happening at Vertigo.
33 Variations continues at Vertigo Theatrics through April 1. For more information contact the box office at (810) 239-7469 or online at www.vertigotheatrics.com