“Let us begin with how something came about. Why it came about in that particular way and became what it is.” —Ludwig van Beethoven.
Red Turnip Theater‘s production of Moisés Kaufman’s 33 VARIATIONS presents a visually compelling platform that depicts time, music, and a journey spanning two centuries. In 33 Variations, first-time director Jenny Jamora, compellingly brings her audience to a trip down our history books and then back again. As we go along, Jamora tours her audiences through varying themes on hypotheses and facts, theories and presences, art and life, mother and daughter, life and death.
When Ludwig Van Beethoven was commissioned to compose a variation of a Diabelli waltz, Beethoven took more than four years to rearrange and transform every note in Diabelli’s waltz, until he finished, not just one, but 33 variations on a relatively simple theme. Present day, Katherine Brandt, a musicologist and a Beethoven scholar, is driven to decipher the mystery behind Beethoven’s greatest works – the 33 Variations. She jumps off from the theory that Beethoven wanted to prove that something great can still come out from something that is simple, something that is trivial. To do this, she has to fly to Germany, leaving her daughter Clara in New York. But for Katherine, this research is the pinnacle of her life’s work, and she has to make haste. She has been diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), and like music, a coda is at hand.
Teroy Guzman returns to the stage with magnificent gusto as Ludwig Van Beethoven. He captures every block in Ed Lacson Jr.‘s encompassing multi-dimensional set. Guzman convinces his audiences of Beethoven’s crazy passion and spirited sincerity. Guzman, known for his works in some of our local Shakespearean productions, uses his craft to depict an icon’s idiosyncrasies and greatness, parallel to our own.
Shamaine Centera-Buencamino is Katherine Brandt all the way. She portrays the obsessed Katherine with stunning conviction as she journeys to discover the truth behind her questions. In her obsession to an obsession, she presents Katherine as the focused and determined woman for her art, but a distracted mother for her daughter. Here, Centera-Buencamino has, once again, set a notch for the Phillippine stage; another portrayal that could be worth a separate discourse.
Paolo O’Hara and Rem Zamora, as Anton Diabelli and Anton Schindler are equally enjoyable to watch. While O’Hara is the joyful, seemingly demanding publisher, Zamora is the loyal, abiding, yet curious apprentice to his slowly fading Master. Ina Fabregas‘ Clara Brandt is the daughter who is as always reaching and wanting. She is the towering elephant in her mother’s life (more about this later).
Roselyn Perez is wonderfully brilliant as Gertrude Ladenburger. She’s the accidental friend to Katherine, an frustrated scholar who understands Katherine’s obsession to Beethoven’s works. Franco Chan as Mike Clark is quietly charming as Clara’s boyfriend and Katherine’s personal nurse. What I particularly like about Mike is that he presents the wondering neophyte to the crazily intense world of people and their arts. Though Mike is learnéd about what Katherine is going and will eventually go through, his ignorance to the dominating art around him surpasses his known science and practice. In Mike, most of us see ourselves.
Beethoven struggled with deafness throughout his life, losing his hearing when he was 48. This alone makes him a musical genius. From the first symptoms in 1796 to his death in 1827, Beethoven was plagued by a constant ringing and buzzing in his ears that was often excruciatingly loud. Despite this, he did not give up on his art and continued to compose until the very end (Morrison, 2012). In the play, Katherine Brandt has had a passionate life with Beethoven’s works and legacy. In her passion, she has had a considerable recognition in the academic world, at the expense of her relationship with her only daughter. But now that she’s been diagnosed with ALS, and that time is running out, she will use what she knows of Beethoven to bridge the gap between her and Clara.
33 Variations explores how life attempts to be greater towards its end. In one’s passionate life, one can’t help not to attempt to hit a much higher note for that final swan song. During these precious moments, we race the sun to climb greater heights before time runs out. Katherine seeks with great attempts to understand Beethoven’s mediocrity. As Katherine explores and slowly finds the answers, she begins to understand her daughter, her Beethoven and finally — herself; and with her understanding comes the crowning peak.
As Kaufman juxtaposes the life of an icon and that of his follower in a compelling two-hour dimensional narrative, Red Turnip Theater succeeds once again in bringing yet another daring and though-provoking material for the Filipino theater goer. In its essence, 33 Variations whispers to us to live life and race the sun as if the end is at hand. Through the stories of Katherine, Clara and Ludwig, we learn that great things come even from the most flawed beginnings, and we can make them flourish if only we’d look a little closer and embrace with a little more love.