Monday, October 15, 2012

Variations in Culture: Part 1

Recently, Doug and I had a weekend full of culture of all types.  The title of this post was intentionally chosen, as our first cultural excursion was to the University of Arkansas Theatre for their production of 33 Variations.  According to Wikipedia, the U of A is the first college production of this play, a Tony nominee for best play in 2009.

Although I love theatre and want to support the drama department, on this particular day I really didn't want to go.  It was a long day at work, the temperature dropped 30 degrees in a day, and I really didn't want to walk all the way (read: a little over a mile) back to campus an hour after I walked home.  Not to mention that we saw three of the four shows the theatre department put on last year, and one of them was awful (neither of us liked the play, although the production seemed OK), one of them was decent and the third I was insanely critical of because I know the show really well (they did Cabaret for the spring musical, and the casting was bad--seemed like they were casting MFA students in lead roles so that they could have leads rather than casting the best singers/actors for the parts).

Despite my reticence, we trudged back up to campus anyway, figuring it was the last weekend to see the show and it would be something different from watching TV on the couch.  As it turns out, I'm really glad we went, because the play was fabulous, and the acting was stellar.

33 Variations is a play about a musicologist and her obsession with understanding why Beethoven wrote what is now known as Diabelli's Variations.  Diabelli, a publisher and composer, wrote a short waltz and sent it to all the prominent composers of the day, asking them to write a variation on it, where he intended to publish them together as a set.  Beethoven ended up writing 33 variations of Diabelli's waltz, and the reasons for him doing so are unclear.

The musicologist, Katherine, goes to Germany to immerse herself in Beethoven's sketches, a trip that is not encouraged by her daughter, Clara, in large part because Katherine has been diagnosed with ALS (otherwise known has Lou Gehrig's disease).  The play, then, is about Katherine's tenuous relationship with her daughter and her quest to understand Beethoven's 33 Variations.  We, the audience, see the modern day Katherine and we see scenes of Beethoven, Diabelli, and Beethoven's right hand man-servant/friend, as Beethoven writes the variations and slowly loses his hearing.  Of course, we also see Katherine succumb to her disease.  The two stories are woven together masterfully, and the play is both funny and dramatic.

The University of Arkansas production was beautiful.  The set was simple but flexible, the lighting was dramatic when it needed to be, and none of it was overdone.  The acting was also really great, particularly the MFA student who played Katherine, but really the whole cast did an excellent job.  I walked out of the play with virtually no criticism, which for me is really saying something.  Doug enjoyed it as well; I think he said that this was the best non-comedy play he's ever seen.

After the show we walked home in the cold and made ourselves even more cold by getting frozen yogurt at our favorite choose-your-topping frozen yogurt shop on the way home.  I'm so glad I fought my "ehhh, lets just watch TV" impulse, because there is something magical about seeing a really good piece of theatre, when the writing and the play come together with a good production. It doesn't happen all that often for me, but when it does, I know I'll remember the experience for many years to come.

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