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Jane Fonda in Moisés Kaufman's "33 Variations" at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre
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Jane Fonda in Moisés Kaufman's "33 Variations" at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre

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Production of:

33 Variations
Eugene O’Neill Theatre
230 West 49th Street

Starring: Jane Fonda
Written and Directed by Moisés Kaufman
Music by Ludwig van Beethoven
(Beethoven Bio)
(Digital Beethoven-Haus Bonn)

Also Starring:
Samantha Mathis, Colin Hanks, Zach Grenier,
Don Amendolia, Susan Kellermann, Erik Steele

Diane Walsh: Pianist – Musical Director

Scott Barrow, Melissa M. Spengler,
Caitlin O’Connell, Michael Winther

Scenic Design: Derek McLane
Costume Design: Janice Pytel
Lighting Design: David Lander
Sound Design: André J. Pluess
Projection Design: Jeff Sugg
Wig & Hair Design: Charles LaPointe
Choreographer: Daniel Pelzig
Additional Costumes: David C. Woolard
Dramaturg: Mark Bly
Casting: James Calleri, CSA
Production Manager: Juniper Street Productions
Production Stage Manager: Linda Marvel
Marketing Director: Eric Schnall
Press: Boneau/Bryan-Brown
General Management: 101 Productions, Ltd.
Assoc. Producer: Paula Herold

Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
March 18, 2009

33 Variations is one of the most inspiring and transporting plays I’ve seen in years. So much of today’s pop culture contains crass commercial music, and here we have Beethoven in a dynamic drama that draws you in. Jane Fonda, onstage after a 46 year break, is perfectly cast as Dr. Katherine Brandt, a musicologist who travels to Bonn to research Beethoven’s motivation in writing 33 Variations on one theme by Anton Diabelli, a trifle of a waltz, on Beethoven’s first encounter.

Beethoven wrote the between 1819 and 1823, when he was deaf, destitute, and diseased. Beethoven died in 1827. Dr. Brandt researched Beethoven’s work in her final years, as well, when she was riddled with ALS, or "Lou Gehrig's Disease". Dr. Brandt, personified as a feisty, self-sufficient scholar, is also the self-possessed mother of Clara Brandt (Samantha Mathis), a young woman of many short-term jobs and relationships. Clara needs to bond, especially in her mother’s medical ordeal, but Katherine needs to detach, to escape into her world of ideas, to transcend her world of pain. When Katherine bonds, it’s with Beethoven.

This entire production is a class act. Diane Walsh, as Pianist – Musical Director, plays several complete “Variations” and segments of several others. Ms. Walsh brought out fine nuances of each of the performed “Variations”, focusing on the poignancy, the wit, the clarity, the marches, the dances, the operatic references, while Ms. Fonda, as Dr. Brandt, rejoices in learning of these nuances and exploring Beethoven’s mental and emotional state, during the compositional project. Zach Grenier, so impressive in A Man for All Seasons, is even more impressive here. He exudes passion, obsession, dedication, and authenticity as the renowned composer, who overwhelms his personal assistant, a composer in his own right, Anton Schindler (Erik Steele), a practical and pragmatic adviser. Beethoven also spars, then connects with Diabelli (Don Amendolia), as the trifle waltz takes on 33 reincarnations.

Moisés Kaufman has artfully arranged this two act production to intersect past and present, that is, 1819, 1823, and The Present. He also intersects Beethoven’s Vienna, the Bonn, Germany Beethoven-Haus, and Katherine’s world in New York. Beethoven’s dialogue in Vienna may morph to silent onstage presence, while Dr. Brandt converses with the Beethoven-Haus Bonn Director, Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger (Susan Kellermann). At times, Beethoven and Dr. Brandt cross time zones to become a visual, musical, imaginary duo, physically together, in Dr. Brandt’s and in our minds. Mr. Kaufman leads us veritably into the mind of the scholar, and thus into the mind of the composer, while we hear the piano phrases and harmonies in aesthetic enhancement of the moment.

As Dr. Ladenburger, Susan Kellermann is the strong, meticulous caretaker of a rare artistic archive, yet, at times, she reveals her desire for friendship, for camaraderie. She meets her match in Dr. Brandt, a woman who tosses doctors’ admonitions aside to follow her scholarly quest. In one brief moment of sentiment, Katherine disappoints Gertrude, who thought they were friends. Katherine also disappoints Clara, who interprets her mother’s detachment as rejection, as loss. Clara finds solace in Mike Clark, a warm, nurturing lover, played by Colin Hanks, an artist to watch. Colin epitomized the soothing, reliable confidant that Clara could not find in Katherine. And, Katherine epitomized the isolated, self-protective woman who found difficulty in unpeeling her soul. She found her solace in music and private, intellectual illuminations.

Moisés Kaufman imagined this classical-contemporary oeuvre, through his own fascination with Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, and we, as the audience, are thus enriched. He also directed his play, and he meshes the actors’ words with the solo piano, like a choreographer, with full intent toward the gestalt. That gestalt is expanded with compositional projections (thanks to Jeff Sugg) and mesmerizing backdrops (thanks to Derek McLane). There’s even a wall of boxed manuscripts, when the action moves to Bonn. David Lander’s lighting is incandescent and eclectic, in shifts of centuries and characters. André J. Pluess designed sound that’s never overstated, but magnifies the mood. When Dr. Katherine Brandt succumbs to her illness, before our eyes, and sings, with a chorus of actors, Beethoven’s Kyrie, she suddenly comes alive, her muscles taut, her voice strong. This moment is not melodramatic, but, rather, momentous; that is, momentous for the audience and actors, joined in the experience, just as Dr. Katherine Brandt was joined by Ludwig van Beethoven in her aesthetic quest for meaning. Kudos to Jane Fonda, kudos to Zach Grenier, and kudos to Moisés Kaufman.

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For more information, contact Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower at