You are viewing this article in the archives. For the latest breaking news and updates in Ann Arbor and the surrounding area, see
Posted on Wed, Mar 27, 2013 : 5:59 a.m.

Purple Rose Theatre's new production explores '33 Variations' on a Beethoven theme

By Jenn McKee


Michelle Mountain, David Bendena and Richard McWilliams in "33 Variations."

photo by Sean Carter Photograph | courtesy of the Purple Rose Theatre Co.

The Purple Rose Theatre’s artistic director Guy Sanville had been more of a Bach and Handel man before deciding to take on Moises Kaufman’s “33 Variations,” which focuses on an ailing musicologist (and mother) who’s struggling against time to unlock the mystery behind one of Beethoven’s last projects.

“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.


”33 Variations”

  • Who: Purple Rose Theatre Company.
  • What: Time-jumping Moises Kaufman play that focuses on musicologist Katherine Brandt, who’s racing against time and her failing health to unlock the mystery behind Beethoven’s obsession with a simple waltz, while Beethoven, in 19th century Austria, wrestles with a commission he can’t fulfill. This play contains adult language and content.
  • Where: Purple Rose Theatre, 137 Park St. in Chelsea.
  • When: Wednesdays at 3 and 8 p.m.; Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 3 and 8 p.m.; and Sundays at 2 p.m., March 28-June 1. (In previews March 28-April 4.)
  • How much: $27-$42 (with two Ford Friday performances April 19 and May 24 at 8 p.m., for which tickets cost $18.50 each.) Preview performances, March 28-April 4, cost $22-$32. 734-433-7673 and
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.”


Richard McWilliams, Michelle Mountain, David Bendena and Daniel C. Britt in "33 Variations."

photo by Sean Carter Photography | courtesy of the Purple Rose Theatre Co.

Jenn McKee is the entertainment digital journalist for Reach her at or 734-623-2546, and follow her on Twitter @jennmckee.