Purple Rose Theatre's new production explores '33 Variations' on a Beethoven theme
photo by Sean Carter Photograph | courtesy of the Purple Rose Theatre Co.
“I wasn’t much of a Beethoven fan before we got started,” said Sanville. “But I listened to the complete (Diabelli) Variations, and it helped me realize what a drooling Neanderthal I am. I listened to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony again and—you know how they say that if humanity was suddenly wiped out, and aliens found the complete works of Shakespeare, they’d have a decent snapshot of what we were like? I feel the same way now about Beethoven’s Ninth.”
Those who come to see “33 Variations” may also leave as Beethoven fans, since the composer’s music is not only discussed, but also forms an aural backdrop for the show.The play—which in 2010 brought Jane Fonda back to the Broadway stage for the first time in 46 years—moves between the past and the present as musicologist Katherine Brandt tries to figure out why Beethoven dedicated so much of his time and talent to riffing on an unremarkable waltz; while Beethoven himself, in 19th century Austria, wrestles with a commission he can’t fulfill.
Yet as Katherine grasps for answers, her body is failing her fast, and she must ultimately face another thing that confounds her: her daughter.
“I liked the story of the mother and the daughter,” said Sanville, who saw Fonda perform in the Broadway premiere production. “The dynamic fascinates me and appeals to me. I have a 14-year-old daughter, and she and her mother are so close, yet the battles are epic. All I can do is stand and watch sometimes. But the character of Katherine is also a great role for a mature woman, and those are getting harder to come by. Katherine is somebody who’s so strong, and she’s someone who despises mediocrity in any form. To see her losing the ability to even scratch her nose—that’s an interesting dilemma.”
In Sanville’s scaled-down production, Michelle Mountain plays Katherine.
“I was kind of afraid of the physical stuff, the deterioration,” said Mountain, who’s drawing on her aunt for inspiration (the aunt suffers from a gradually progressive, incurable disease). “ She’s been in a wheelchair for 15 years now, and she can’t speak anymore. In a way, getting to do this role feels like an honor.”
And after years performing in a drum corps, as well as having brothers who were musicians, Mountain felt at home with the material.
“Every Sunday morning, I distinctly remember waking up in more than one house to find my father conducting Beethoven, as it played loudly,” said Mountain.
In “Variations,” Beethoven is brought to life by Richard McWilliams, who tried to do his homework (i.e., reading a biography, among other things) before arriving in Chelsea from Dayton, Ohio.
“This guy was pretty awful at relationships and had a tough time dealing with his nephew and several other people in his life,” said McWilliams.
“Variations” will be new to many local theatergoers who primarily associate Kaufman with “The Laramie Project.”
“(‘Laramie’) is moving stuff, but it’s not really a complete play for me,” said Sanville. “I have some pretty rigid ideas about dramatic structure. (‘Laramie’) is beautiful and moving, and I cried with everybody else, but I think (‘Variations’) is more satisfying as a play. It’s structurally very strong, and for me, that’s the big difference.”
photo by Sean Carter Photography | courtesy of the Purple Rose Theatre Co.