33 Variations: Mediocre From Beginning to End

Karen Landry and Edwin Strout.

Karen Landry and Edwin Strout.

A lot of the talk in 33 Variations (and there really is a lot of talk here) is about why the great composer Ludwig Van Beethoven spent so much time pulling apart a simple and mediocre-sounding waltz.

Mediocre is the watch word for this Park Square Theatre production. We have a mediocre script from Moises Kaufman, a group of actors giving mediocre performances, and mediocre directing from James Rocco.

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Kaufman's layered script looks at two stories two centuries apart. In contemporary times, musicologist Katherine Brandt travels to Bonn, Germany, to try to unlock the mystery of Beethoven's variations on Anton Diabelli's waltz. Her daughter, Clara, doesn't think she should travel, as the elder Brandt has recently been diagnosed with ALS.

Aware that this will likely be her final work, Brandt takes the trip. As her health worsens, she spends her days examining the notes Beethoven left behind. When her strength begins to fail, Clara (with new boyfriend, nurse Mike, in tow) heads to Germany to help.

Along with this, we follow Beethoven through the years he was working on the variations. It is also late in his life, as his hearing finally fails. The parallels are obvious. Too obvious, really. Kaufman's script tends to explain what's going on and what is going to happen next, without providing much space for actual drama.

Here's an example. When Brandt first arrives at the music library, the librarian Gertrude carefully explains the history and the procedures and everything else that a musicologist would have 1) already known or 2) hashed out beforehand. It's here only for the audience's benefit, but is told in such a clunky way as to make it dramatically inert.

That happens throughout the play, where the occasional highlight (a halting early date between Clara and Mike at a classical music concert) gets weighed down by too much dull talk.

Apart from Nate Cheeseman as Mike, none of the actors in the contemporary setting are able to overcome the failings of the script. They are paired with more exaggerated acting from the trio of historical figures, who seem to have been imported from a 19th-century melodrama about the composer, right down to Peter Simmons's over-the-top Italian accent as Diabelli (who, it should be noted, was born and lived in Austria; I imagine he could speak German just as well as Beethoven and his secretary, Schindler).

The whole show feels like a hodgepodge of ideas and scenes that don't properly connect, apart from the music (well played by pianist Irina Elkina) and the occasional moment when the lectures and shouting stop long enough for some real humanity to shine through the murk.


33 Variations Through November 2 Park Square Theatre 20 W. Seventh Pl., St. Paul $38-$58 For tickets and more information, call 651.291.7005 or visit online.