Gerald: It's all about beauty. What is it? How does it occur? Well, according to playwright-director Kaufman, the creative process is rooted in obsession. Beethoven becomes inexplicably obsessed, for several years, with writing variations on an innocent little waltz written (apparently as a kind of publicity stunt) by Viennese music publisher Anton Diabelli. In the present day, musicologist Dr. Katherine Brandt becomes obsessed with finding out the reasons behind Beethoven's obsession. Therein lies a two-hundred-year-old mystery: Why did he do it?
Georja: Brandt devotes the rest of her life to discovering this musical truth. She cares so deeply about Beethoven, that her daughter Clara, played as an adult by Samantha Mathis, had asked her once as a child if when she listens to the music whether she is listening to "God singing."
Gerald: Obsession isn't the only parallel here. It's also illness -- specifically, degeneration. Both Dr. Brandt and Beethoven are in the final stages of their life journeys. But it's not just tragic. Evidently, and this would be according to Kaufman, creativity reaches its peak as life is about to wink out. And there's another parallel: The process of writing the variations begins with de-composition. Beethoven had to deconstruct Diabelli's ditty before he could rebuild it in thirty-three miraculous ways. Dr. Brandt comes to look on this feat as a kind of transformation, and indeed her character experiences her own personal transformation as a loving mother, as the play concludes.
Gerald: While I'm fascinated by the story, by the intellectual quest of it, the form of the play isn't all that engaging. Mind you, I'm talking about the material, not the power of the performances, which were stellar. In many of the scenes, the characters are facing front, looking out through the fourth wall, addressing the audience. Their monologues are about as engaging as lectures, and indeed some of Dr. Brandt's literally are lectures. Beethoven, too, gets a few long rants. The most emotional scenes are actually between the lovers Clara and Mike, and this is a subplot. The relationship between Katherine and her daughter is central, and should also be emotionally involving, but it's not. Katherine is cold and businesslike in the first half of the play, and that's her character flaw. But it puts distance between us, as it does with her daughter. By the time we like her more, it's almost too late.
Georja: Every actor in this piece takes their character and runs with it. Samantha Mathis as Clara is truthful as the very independent although caring daughter who often locks horns with her driven mother. Greg Keller as Mike Clark, her boyfriend, is amazingly agile, relaxed and humorous in every moment. Grant James Varjas shines as the quirky Anton Shindler, "friend of Beethoven"who always finds ways to care for his master, despite the constant bombastic eccentric ravings. Beethoven himself, played to perfection by Zach Grenier, is always the bigger than life genius who we all want to befriend as well. Susan Kellermann as Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger draws a clear and engaging character, as does Don Amendolia as the warm-hearted businessman Anton Diabelli who started it all.
Gerald: The play and the music -- and the story behind the music -- are all fascinating. And the performances are strong. But given the ambitious theme -- the interaction of life, love, creativity, and music -- I expected it to touch my heart as well as my head, but it didn't.
Georja: I agree; the idea is original and has many fascinating and wonderful aspects --not the least is Diane Walsh's live piano renditions of the Variations sprinkled throughout the story. Yet there is also a sense that the stories of Beethoven the musician and Brandt the musicologist are somewhat pushed and shoved into parallel. Contemporary and historic scenes are sometimes run at the same time, crescendoing cleverly into same language or emotions in both. The bringing up of the Kyrie Eleison to add dramatic effect near the death scene seemed forced. Still it is a fascinating and intriguing show and very worthwhile. And Jane Fonda is commanding the stage.
Georja Umano is an actress/comedienne and animal advocate. Gerald Everett Jones is the author of the Rollo Hemphill series of comic novels.
Photos by Craig Schwartz
Center Theatre Group
601 W. Temple Street
Los Angeles, CA 90012
Feb 9 - Mar 6, 2011
Tues - Fri 8pm
Sat 2pm and 8pm
Sun 1pm and 6:30pm