Kaufman calls each scene a "variation" and the narrative ping pongs back and forth between Brandt's travails and Beethoven's struggles. Seated upstage at the piano, Catherine Stornetta exquisitely overlays the composer's actual musical variations throughout the process, infusing the production with swells of emotion that only live music can evoke. Plum's performance is courageous and heartfelt, as much a tribute to those who suffer with ALS as it is a triumph of acting. Her characterization is so well-defined that she projects Brandt's personality through the miasma of the disease as it takes control of her life. In tandem, the two women are the linchpins that give the play its heart and its soul.
Shepard is equal to the task of sparring with Plum. Clara is the only ambivalent character in the play, torn between trying to be her own person (even though her mother sees her constant career changes as failure) and wanting to be there for the woman who refuses to admit needing any assistance. The struggle plays out on Shepard's face and in her body language, but she also gets to relax and enjoy life in her scenes with Akin, who brings some heat as Clara's admirer, and uses his sensitivity to warm Katherine's icy core.
Andreassi is a wonderful Beethoven, even bearing somewhat of a physical resemblance (especially the hair). The role requires him to display a range of emotions, but he is at his best when he rises to a near frenzy while describing and acting out the nuances of the fugue variation as Stornetta musically illustrates. His camaraderie is natural with Shopov, who is a credible caretaker to his master and a wheeler-dealer on his behalf.The always reliable McGarrahan shows that Diabelli is not just a vainglorious dilettante, but also a shrewd businessman and a caring friend. Keiller's spot on German accent and deadpan exterior belie the underlying current of affection and respect that she has for Katherine.
Director Spiro Veloudos has taken great pains to cast the play with actors who possess great depth of feeling and to recruit a design team that conveys the essence of the locales and the sensibility of the times. He is a masterful curator of the space constraints at the Lyric Stage, never making excuses while finding creative ways to make art. Projection Designer Shawn Boyle helps to expand the options, using maps, airplanes, and sheet music layered atop Cristina Todesco's scenic design. Charles Schoonmaker's costumes for Beethoven, Schindler, and Diabelli are beautifully textured and evocative of the 19th century. With an abundance of musical interludes in the play, Brendan F. Doyle's sound design is of the utmost importance and is effective, as is Karen Perlow's lighting design.
33 Variations premiered at Arena Stage in Washington, DC, in 2007, and marked Jane Fonda's return to Broadway in 2009, where it received five Tony Award nominations. When Veloudos saw the original production, he knew at once that Plum would be his choice to play Katherine Brandt if he staged the play in Boston. Their collaboration speaks for itself. Kaufman suggests that, although they are physically two centuries apart, the blustery Beethoven and the bristly Brandt are soul mates. They both push people away out of single-minded dedication to their work, the thing which matters most to them. In the end, they discover that passion burns hot and brightly, but a flame burns in the hearts of those who love you for eternity.
Photo credit: Mark S. Howard (Catherine Stornetta, James Andreassi)