The play 33 Variations, written by Moises Kaufman, was a sensation on Broadway in 2009 and is now being brought to Montreal audiences by Brave New Productions from May 13 - 24. Directed by Donald Rees and Tracy Allan, it promises to be a unique theatrical experience at the brand new Theatre Paradoxe, inside redeveloped Notre Dame du Perpétuel Secours Church. If Kaufman's name sounds familiar, that's because he wrote the influencial The Laramie Project, a witty and touching play that continues to be the bane of the Westboro Baptist Church.
Playing with time, the show takes us back and forth 200 years, shifting between present-day New York and nineteenth-century Austria as the action alternates between Beethoven’s era and the present.
In modern-day New York, musicologist Katherine Brandt, played by Emma McQueen, searches for meaning in Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, while dealing both with the progression of her ALS and her relationship with her daughter. Meanwhile in Austria, 200 years ago, Beethoven crafts his masterpiece and struggles with his growing deafness. The effects used to transport us back and forth between worlds alone would be reason enough to see this play. However, this production is also distinguished by the live music and the fact that Beethoven is played by a woman, Stephanie McKenna.
We sat down with the director and the two leading actresses to hear what they have to say:
You’re going to play of the most famous men in history [Ludwig Van Beethoven]. Not an easy feat. What inspires you to rise to this challenge?
Throughout life we’re constantly bombarded with challenges that attack us from every angle... The beauty of theatre when faced with a challenging role is that you have a good idea going in what the challenge will be. You have tools, time and a team to help you overcome that challenge... This is human behaviour. [That] gives me strength to face this role head on. As an actor, what appeals to me about Beethoven is his arc. You get to see Beethoven start healthy and deteriorate. It’s as if his life is flashing before your eyes. It’s fun to try to get inside the head of such an eccentric and inspiring historical figure.
“In Theatre, gender impersonation should not be seen as an attempt to imitate the other sex, but rather as an effort to combine elements and create something fresh.” -Harvard Curator Laurence Senelick
Do you agree with this statement?
I think that’s a great quote. I hope audiences leave not thinking about Beethoven’s gender. It’s the story of his life. I’m not pretending to be a man when I go on stage. I’m just being. I’m creating a character and bringing to life what’s on the page and those pages have no gender.
How does it feel stepping into the role of Jane Fonda's legendary performance?
I'm honoured to be following in Fonda’s footsteps in this exceptional role...the balance of strength and fragility in the character of Katherine Brandt is an exciting, humbling challenge for any actor. While I’m aware of Fonda’s critical acclaim, I did not see her performance. Now that I’m taking on the role myself, I’m glad I didn’t... My job is to bring the character written on the page to life as fully and directly as possible. The less I am influenced by others’ interpretation, the better.
What made you decide to take on this play?
I read the script in 2011 and loved it but the staging seemed too ambitious for the size of the company back then. To be honest, it's still extremely ambitious right now. In 2011, I saw a set we couldn't build. But in 2015, I saw a beautiful story that could be brought to life with talented actors.
The story is complex...It's that rare opportunity where there are many threads and many flavours to experience in one show. This isn't just a drama, it has comedy, live music and a love story. I've been anxious to work on something like this that builds on the strengths of the team we've become over the past few years and throws in elements we've never worked with before, like the live music. Every aspect of the show is a challenge but that's exciting. We are growing so much by tackling this project and are learning a tremendous amount about our strengths and weaknesses.
Can you give us some insight into how you will transport us back and forth between the eras?
Our venue, Theatre Paradoxe, is so unique and special that we've made the decision to strip down the set pieces and instead focus on the two unnamed characters in our show: light and music. We have a grand piano and a very talented pianist playing live, at centre stage during the show. To present that type of experience inside a massive old church is a gift and the state-of-the-art modern lighting equipment allows us to transport the audience and tell our story in a very special way. Light and music are the main tools we're using to transport the audience from past to present.
Available on Itunes at https://itun.es/ca/mZ0W6, the show has released an original song by Donald Rees and Ian Baird: Variation Us (feat. Ian Baird). The song is a mix of classical music and contemporary beats and designed uniquely for the show.
Tickets are available at www.bravenewproductions.com