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33 Variations at TimeLine Theatre Company | Theater review

Janet Ulrich Brooks scores in Moisés Kaufman’s portrait of a music scholar in declining health.

Photograph: Lara Goetsch
Janet Ulrich Brooks in 33 Variations at TimeLine Theatre Company

Call it stoicism, stubbornness, pride or denial; musicologist Dr. (never forget the Dr.) Katherine Brandt has her share of each when it comes to her diagnosis of ALS. Despite her deteriorating health, Katherine insists on going through with a trip to Bonn, where she plans to study Beethoven’s sketches for his Diabelli Variations. She’s determined to unravel the mystery behind Beethoven’s obsession with Diabelli’s “mediocre waltz.” Daughter Clara is flustered by Katherine’s obstinate assertion of her independence.

Moisés Kaufman’s slightish script parallels Katherine’s physical decline with that of her subject, flashing back to scenes of Beethoven (Terry Hamilton in a chintzy wig) squabbling with his loyal secretary (Matthew Krause) and music publisher Diabelli (Michael Kingston) as the composer struggles with his ongoing hearing loss and other maladies. Often characters in both eras occupy the stage in counterpoint, occasionally sharing lines or props; the effect is something like Arcadia cross-bred with Amadeus.

If Kaufman’s 2007 work feels a bit underwritten, Nick Bowling’s handsome production pulls out all the stops in filling it out, starting with Janet Ulrich Brooks’s nuanced, vanity-free portrayal of Katherine. Brooks captures every facet of the scholar’s hubris, frustration and fear, crafting an especially compelling relationship with Jessie Fisher’s equally complex Clara. Juliet Hart and Ian Paul Custer provide strong support as a fellow scholar and Clara’s suitor, respectively. Brian Sidney Bembridge’s bi-level blond wood set makes a clean canvas for Mike Tutaj’s masterful projections while concealing surprises of its own. And Beethoven’s music is front and center, with pianist George Lepauw onstage throughout to demonstrate Katherine’s discoveries. Brooks and her castmates find appealing gradations in their characters, even if Kaufman’s schematic script could use more variation.