Scant Variety in 33 Variations at Theatre Three

33 Variations at Theatre Three is a clumsy and puzzling production. Inspired by Ludwig Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations (all thirty three of them), Moisés Kaufman’s dual-themed mystery romance/drama débuted on Broadway in 2009 (starring Jane Fonda) and won substantial accolades: in 2007 the Edgerton New American Play Award and in 2008 the Steinberg American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award. In 2009 it received five nominations, including Best Play, at the Tony Awards and won for Best Lighting Design. Impressive recognition for superior artistic work. A play about the nature of creativity and human relationship set in the world of classical music: this sounds very familiar. Fort Worth’s Circle Theatre produced two successful productions this year of award-winning plays using classical music as catalyst for human drama exploration (Michael Hollinger’s Opus (2006) and Itamar Moses’ Bach at Leipzig (2005)). 33 Variations feels like playwright Kaufman drew inspiration from the successes of Hollinger and Moses and sought out a subject that would give him a similar, sure-fire winning ticket.

So why is the most consistently interesting part of Theatre Three’s production of 33 Variations the pianist Clark Griffith playing Beethoven’s Variations throughout the show? Griffith is indeed one superior pianist; he was third place winner at the 2007 Van Cliburn International Competition for Outstanding Amateurs. His playing is awe-inspiring. But piano performance functions as an underscore to the play; it should not take precedence over action, arc and character. Opening night’s thunderous applause for Mr. Griffith, following enthused but polite clapping for the play’s actors, reflects my feelings exactly. The ensemble just doesn’t sell the show.

Sometimes Theatre Three’s in the round playing space with high back walls and four steeply raked seating areas works well to reinforce the ambient reality of a production (Sherlock Holmes and the Crucifer of Blood, for instance). In this case a sprawling set forces the audience to continually crane, twist and shift to follow along.  At one high corner of the space is a scrim that actors perform both behind in silhouette as well as in front of.  Sometimes hard to tell what they’re doing…. A short level below the scrim sits the grand piano with Mr. Griffith playing intensely, always visible but in separate reality from the play’s action. Disconcerting. Ground level features an elegantly painted floor depiction of sheet music containing notes of one variation across most of the space, like a large, formal rug, with low platforms and movable set pieces perched at its edges. No scene in this production allows this intriguing floor design the focus it deserves. Diagonally across from the scrim, another elevated area, not always clearly defined, provides various ‘realistic’ settings. The continuous, needless bustle to move set pieces and hustle actors into place up and down stairs and levels and across the space makes scenes disjointed, rushed and choppy, the actors seeming always out of breath. A realm of inspired creativity and imagination figures integrally in this script. Fantasy intersects with and over-rides reality throughout. In this production, the complicated, multi-level set detracts from the play’s simple, surreal, structural elegance and limits its characters’ potential for metaphorical connection in parallel, complimentary universes.

Some characters exist in modern times and are attired accordingly; Beethoven, his manservant Schindler and composer Diabelli wear period dress suited to their late 1700’s reality.  I found it impossible not to recall the accurate detail, resplendent brocades, glorious wigs and exquisite fit of Bach at Leipzigs period costumes when considering the rough-hewn, bland colored, ill fitting coats and raggedy, un-pressed, contemporary (?) pants worn by actors in this 33 Variations. Suggestive of period costumes – kinda?  Don’t peer at them too closely.

Can any actor play nuanced emotion while shouting?  Sharon Garrison in lead role Katherine seems directed to ‘speak up’ in Theatre Three’s ever microphone free zone. She has a powerful, colorful voice and commanding presence on stage; when she opens the play almost bellowing her lines she limits the scope of performance. She never communicates the range of emotion appropriate for her character due to this ever present need to ‘speak up’. Similarly, Lydia Mackey plays mostly on one emotional level and tone (shrill, loud, resentful) throughout the play as Katherine’s grown daughter Clara, voicing every line caustically and stridently. Clara comes across as unlovable and unloving. It’s hard to comprehend her boyfriend Mike’s unwavering devotion to her, as performed. Mackey has a liquid, musical speaking voice. I was sorry to see it used in this abrasive manner. The actors playing the two composers and one manservant (R. Bruce Elliott, Jackie L. Kemp, Gordon Fox) play their roles much more broadly than the modern dress characters, verging on caricature. It’s unclear if they are portraying ‘real’ people or cartoon-like constructs in main character Katherine’s imagination. Their portrayals intensify the production’s disconnected sense, out of sync with the script. The most believable, multidimensional, at ease performance comes from Andrew Kasten as Clara’s boyfriend Mike. His character, as played here,  could belong to a different play. Terry McCracken grounds any scene she’s in with her sincere delivery and regal bearing; she hits her role’s comic marks with skilled precision. As Clara and Katherine’s family friend Gertrude, she gets drowned out by the largeness and intensity of the main characters’ performances.

This is a fascinating play, clumsily produced. Go for Clark Griffith’s superb piano playing.

33 Variations runs through October 30 at Theatre Three in Dallas’ Quadrangle. 214.871.3300

Ken Birdsell photos

#1: L-R: Andrew Kasten, Lydia Mackay, Sharon Garrison

#2: L-R: R Bruce Elliott, Jackie L. Kemp

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