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Live Active Cultures

‘33 Variations’ at Garden Theatre

A play about transformation in a theater on the edge of transformation in a town that's been transformed

Photo: Photos by Kristen Wheeler, KHphotographics, License: N/A

Photos by Kristen Wheeler, KHphotographics

Transfiguration (noun): Metamorphosis from an initial ordinary form to an exalted, elevated state. The word can apply to anything from religious ritual to urban renewal. Its aim can be entirely altruistic, an arrogant expression of ability, or somewhere in between. And it is both the subject, and in a larger sense the object, of Moisés Kaufman’s play 33 Variations, which is currently receiving an emotionally engaging area premiere at Winter Garden’s Garden Theatre, thanks to Beth Marshall Presents.

Wolfgang Mozart was immortalized in the popular 1979 play and 1984 film Amadeus, and Johann Sebastian is the subject (if not star) of Itamar Moses’ 2005 comedy Bach at Leipzig. But Kaufman takes a far less conventional tack in bringing Ludwig van Beethoven to modern theater. This 2007 script does show the slow deterioration of Beethoven (Chris Gibson, in a bravura performance) as he obsesses over turning a simple waltz into an epic compilation of 33 variations that revolutionized the form.

However, the wild-maned maestro is not the play’s main subject, but rather a foil for protagonist Katherine Brandt (Peg O’Keef), a modern-day musicologist whose obsession with Beethoven’s work brings her to Germany. There she befriends music archivist Gertie (Janine Papin) and buries herself in Beethoven’s notebooks, trying to find the secret behind his mania before amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (aka Lou Gehrig’s disease) robs her of her ability to work. In each of the interwoven realities, the true conflict is not musical but interpersonal, as the driven leads chafe against the ministrations of their caretakers: Anton Schindler (Stephen Lima), Beethoven’s loyal friend and unreliable biographer; and Brandt’s dilettante daughter Clara (Becky Eck), who travels to Europe in an attempt to reconcile a strained mother-daughter relationship before it’s too late.

In lesser hands, Kaufman’s blend of musically inspired medical melodrama and magical realism could easily crash and burn, but director Aradhana Tiwari strikes a sensitive balance between the parallel storylines, finding deeply human truths in the somewhat underwritten characters with the aid of some exceptional performances. The cast includes some of Central Florida’s finest actors, led by the legendary O’Keef, whose portrayal of a fiercely intelligent and independent woman whose talents are wasted by disease is as fearlessly naked (figuratively and literally) as any I’ve seen her give. The extreme theatricality of Gibson’s half-mad maestro is initially off-putting, with a physicality and vocal quality that seems inspired by Christopher Lloyd’s Uncle Fester and Doc Brown characters, but you can’t help but empathize with the impoverished genius as he rages against the illness that reduces him. Eck’s work is less showy, but equally effective, bridging the emotional gap between the audience and these larger-than-life leads.

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