Beautiful Mediocrity: 33 Variations
by Kallan Dana
Is the existence of genius contingent on the existence of mediocrity?
Let us begin with Katherine Brandt, renowned American musicologist. Katherine (played here by Annabelle Vaës ’19) is a Beethoven scholar and fanatic. We meet her in the midst of a quest—to figure out what led Beethoven, in the final years of his life, to compose 33 variations on an amateur waltz by music publisher Anton Diabelli (Harrison Winrow ’22). For Katherine, this is a historical mystery. Diabelli’s waltz is “less-than-stellar,” she reports sardonically. Beethoven’s initial response to the waltz was one of similar disdain. When he first received the composition, Beethoven referred to it as commonplace, insignificant, mediocre. An expert surely would never waste his time on something so unremarkable.
And yet, after initially rejecting Diabelli’s request for compositions, Beethoven returned to the invitation, and ended up working on the waltz over the course of four years, from 1819 to 1823, even as Diabelli begged him to finish the work for publication, and his own physical health deteriorated. The reasons for his extensive work on this theme are elusive to Katherine. “What was it about this mediocre waltz that so captured his imagination?” she asks the audience and herself. “I have to understand why a genius became obsessed with mediocrity.” With this goal in mind, she sets off on a journey to Bonn, Germany, to look in archival libraries at the original compositions with the hope of uncovering Beethoven’s rationale for dedicating such extensive time to the piece.
Moisés Kaufman’s 33 Variations, directed here by Marie Glotzbach, jumps back and forth between the early 19th and early 21st centuries, depicting two obsessive experts racing against the clock to finish their work before their time runs out. Katherine shares not only her idol’s insatiable musical intellect, but also his stubbornness and declining physical ability. While composing the Diabelli variations, Beethoven lost most of his hearing, and in the final years of his life was intermittently bedridden from an unknown illness. At the start of the events of the play, Dr. Brandt has been diagnosed with ALS.
Willfully ignoring her looming illness, Katherine researches Beethoven’s original compositions in Germany with the help of the skilled librarian and fellow Beethoven obsessive, Dr. Gertrude “Gertie” Ladenburger (Coco McNeil ’21). Meanwhile, Katherine’s daughter, Clara (Hannah Curtis ’20), anxiously waits for her mother back home, and enters into a relationship with Katherine’s nurse, the affable and supportive Mike (Spencer Evett ’21). Clara, unlike her mother, does not possess single-minded obsessiveness. She has dabbled in many careers but settled in none, and similarly has not stuck with any one partner for long before Mike. “I fear she’ll never truly be anything,” Katherine confesses about Clara. “I’m afraid my daughter is mediocre.” This question of mediocrity lingers throughout 33 Variations, centralizing not only Katherine’s research of Beethoven, but also the relationships throughout the play. For Beethoven and Katherine to be geniuses, must everyone else be less-than?
The production’s intellectual queries are complemented by the visceral representations of song and dance onstage. Two pianists, (Sophia Zhang ’21 in Act I and Joshua Binkhorst ’20 in Act II) play Beethoven’s Diabelli variations throughout the show, immersing the audience in Katherine’s pursuit of understanding the work. Moreover, Glotzbach incorporates two Muse characters into the show (Marin Asnes ’21 and Jillienne Glodowski ’22). Choreographed by dance professor Mary Harney, the muses both guide and respond to the creative impulses of the characters in the piece, their sprightly movements representing the bursts of thought present in Beethoven’s chaotic head. The freedom of their dancing balances out the more philosophical concerns of the play, reminding the audience of why, exactly, Beethoven’s music merits such detailed analysis in the first place.
The production’s gracefulness owes much to the Tectonic Theater Company, Moisés Kaufman’s devising company which first developed 33 Variations. Grant Varjas of Tectonic visited an early rehearsal to teach the company’s devising method of moment work, and this shows in the clarity of the production. The cast takes their time moving from one moment to the next, whether that be through Clara and Mike’s nervous silences and hesitant handholding, or Gertie and Katherine’s delicate passing-back-and-forth of the preserved compositions. The actors’ adept listening and sharp bodily attunement at every turn of the play, along with the unified musicality of the piano and the muses, produce a unity between both timelines, so that even heightened, more formal conversations between the late nineteenth century characters have a simple intimacy and truthfulness.
The intimacy of the production is further drawn out by Andy Nice’s elegant scenic design, the wooden curves of which evoke the the image of a large grand piano lid. Jared Klein’s lighting design, Patty Pawliczak’s costume design, and August Sylvester ‘20’s sound and video work further ground the audience in the various worlds of the play. Klein easily transitions from the warm wash of Beethoven composing in the 19th century to the mood lighting of a 2009 dance club, and Pawliczak’s realist costuming establishes the various degrees of put-togetherness of the characters, establishing a raggedy, cloaked Beethoven in contrast to his more studious, presentational, and organized assistant and friend, Anton Schindler (Ethan Embry ’19). Using the aggressive sound of monitors, Sylvester builds the foreboding medical world of Katherine’s impending illness.
The decline of Katherine’s ability runs in tandem with her daughter’s increasing independence and maturation, but it takes Katherine much of the play to feel pride in what Clara has done, and will go on to do, with her life. “I’ve had so much in my life,” Katherine says at a moment later in the production. “I want her to be happy in hers.” For the perfectionist musicologist, happiness has so often been tethered to accomplishment, to incomparable artistic work. What she ends up discovering over the course of her research of Beethoven, however, is exactly what can be remarkable about the pedestrian, the ordinary—the mediocre.
By the production’s conclusion, Katherine has lost much of her prior physical ability, but gained an entirely new understanding of the unexpected accomplishment inherent in the Diabelli variations. “I propose that Beethoven was not trying to make something out of nothing,” Katherine says to the audience near the play’s end. “Instead, he was showing us what lies in every moment of the waltz.” What made Beethoven a genius, and his 33 variations on Diabelli’s theme a work of genius, was his ability to find value in the ordinary—not to change it into something other than what it is, but to reveal the ways in which seemingly fleeting moments are remarkable. The achievement of the compositions, then, becomes no more beautiful or worthy of attention than the ephemeral, loving glances between Mike and Clara, or Clara helping her mother scratch her nose when she lacks the capacity to do so on her own. In this production of 33 Variations, mediocrity or ordinariness is not something to fear—it is, in actuality, the foundation of great beauty.
By: Moisés Kaufman
Director: Marie Glotzbach
Scenic Design: Andrea Nice
Lighting Design: Jared Klein
Sound/Video Design: August Sylvester ‘20
Costume Design: Patty Pawliczak
Choreography: Mary Harney
Assistant Directors: Miranda Coble and Sarah Marlin
Dramaturg: Zoe Lesser
Assistant Choral Director: Christina Pavlaki
Assistant Choreographer: Sophia Bella Cucchi ‘20
Makeup: Emily Cross ’19 and Megan Muratore ‘19
Hair: L. Esther Hibbs ‘20
Stage Manager: Emily Forer ‘20
Cast: Marin Asnes ’21 (Muse), Joshua Binkhorst ’20 (Pianist), Hannah Curtis ’20 (Clara Brandt), Ethan Embry ’19 (Anton Schindler), Spencer Evett ’21 (Mike Clark), Jillienne Glodowski ’22 (Muse), Coco McNeil ’21 (Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger), Alec Sill ’20 (Ludwig Van Beethoven), Annabelle Vaës ’19 (Katherine Brandt), Harrison Winrow ’22 (Anton Diabelli), Sophia Zhang ’21 (Pianist)
Production Team: Jared Klein (Technical Director), James Varkala (Assistant Technical Director), Jessica Thomas (Scenic Charge & Technical Assistant), Jessie Hamilton ’20 (Assistant Stage Manager), Emily Hardy ’20 (Assistant Stage Manager), Jeff Snug (Original Tectonic Video Design), Eva Hershler ’19 (Props Master/Assistant Scenic Designer), Lea Tanenbaum ’19 (Assistant Lighting Designer), Nina Slowinski ’19 (Assistant Costume Designer), Sarah White ’21 (Assistant Hair Design), JoLynn Dubois ’19 (Wardrobe Supervisor), Max Clifford ’21 (Master Electrician), Taylor Jaskula ’21 (Master Electrician), Catherine Sullivan ’21 (Light Board Operator), Michael Campbell ’22 (Sound Board Operator)
Kallan Dana is a senior theater and English double major and co-editor of STLN