The new drama — written and directed by Mois_s Kaufman — is a co-production between Tectonic Theater Project and Arena Stage. It "examines Beethoven's life and creative process as he obsessively composes 33 variations known as the 'Diabelli Variations,' late in his life," according to Arena. "Struggling to uncover the source of his fixation is Katherine, a modern-day musicologist [played by Broadway's Mary Beth Peil]. Kaufman's D.C. directorial debut weaves performances of Beethoven's compositions, played live by acclaimed pianist Diane Walsh, and original projection design by Jeffrey Sugg into the action of the play."
The official opening night (after previews) is Aug. 30. Performances, at Arena's Kreeger space, continue to Sept. 30.
The cast includes Don Amendolia (as Anton Diabelli), Greg Keller (as Mike Clark), Susan Kellermann (as Gertie Ladenburger), Graeme Malcolm (as Ludwig van Beethoven), Laura Odeh (as Clara Brandt) and Erik Steele (as Anton Schindler).
"I don't think it is very often that a playwright takes on the inner fire of the creative process, as Mois_s does here with Beethoven," stated Arena Stage artistic director Molly Smith. "He is one of the true iconic stage directors working in America today and both Arena Stage and DC audiences are fortunate to be part of the premiere of this significant theatre project."
According to Arena notes, four years ago Kaufman learned of Anton Diabelli from a clerk at the now-defunct Tower Records in New York City. A 19th-century music publisher who composed a waltz and commissioned 50 of Vienna's greatest composers to write a variation on it, Diabelli's intention was to publish the 50 variations in one book that was sure to bring great wealth to his publishing company. Beethoven was one of the composers commissioned, but he declared the waltz "insignificant" and rejected the commission. Later, for reasons that remain a mystery, Beethoven became fixated on the waltz and created not one but 33 different variations on it, eventually composing what many pianists consider to be the most important work in the history of the variation form."
The story stayed with Kaufman, according to Arena. "It immediately captured my imagination," he stated. "Why would someone of Beethoven's stature choose such a trivial melody and spend four years on it? Although this play is based on the birth of the 'Diabelli Variations,' I have chosen to explore the story from a fictional perspective through a contemporary and historical lens. Thus, this play is not a reconstruction of a historical event; rather, it's a series of variations on a moment in one life, and its implications for the past and future."
Kaufman explores the creation of the "Diabelli Variations" through the character of Katherine Brandt, a respected modern-day Beethoven scholar. Against her daughter Clara's objections, Katherine travels to Beethoven's archives in Bonn, Germany, "in order to gain access to his creative process, humor and profound humanity." As Kaufman's play begins to decipher the clues Beethoven left behind, Katherine "discovers a greater revelation not only about herself but also about his enduring, transformative work."
Smith first encountered 33 Variations at the Sundance Theatre Lab in Utah. Tectonic Theater Project, with the collaboration of Arena Stage and Arena's senior dramaturg Mark Bly, held workshops around the country to further develop the play with companies including Arena Stage, Georgetown University, University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana and the Orchard Project in the Catskill Mountains. Bly stated, "Mois_s is one of those artists who has a great questioning spirit. He never stops questioning — as a playwright and as a director."
"I started the process of writing this play with a hunch," stated Kaufman. "It changed many times. The one thing that has remained constant is the main character's desire to understand Beethoven. The workshops have allowed us to flesh that out, through incomparable opportunities of experimentation with each possible character, scenic and aural element of design we needed."
Kaufman's research has been guided by Dr. William A. Kinderman, professor of musicology at the University of Illinois. He's a pianist and award-winning scholar of Beethoven's life and interpreter of his works.
The creative team of 33 Variations will interweave 19th-century Vienna with modern-day America and Germany. The designers are Derek McLane (set), Jeffrey Sugg (projection design), Janice Pytel (costume), David Lander (lighting), Andre Pluess (sound) and Chuck LaPointe (wig). Choreography is by Peter Anastos.
For more information visit www.arenstage.org.
For more information about the Tectonic company visit www.tectonictheaterproject.org.