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Theater review: Cap Rep actors brilliant in riveting ‘33 Variations’

Theater review: Cap Rep actors brilliant in riveting ‘33 Variations’

“33 Variations,” Capital Repertory Theatre’s current production, is not so much a play as it is an e

‘33 Variations’

WHERE: Capital Repertory Theatre, 11 N. Pearl St., Albany

WHEN: Through Oct. 3

HOW MUCH: $50-$35

MORE INFO: 445-7469 or www.capitalrep.org

“33 Variations,” Capital Repertory Theatre’s current production, is not so much a play as it is an experience. Like playwright Moises Kaufman’s other most famous works, “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde” and “The Laramie Project,” it is a masterwork of ideas and heightened themes.

And Cap Rep’s production is more than equal to the genius of the text. Skillfully directed by Gordon Greenberg, it boasts some of the finest acting the Capital Region is likely to see.

Dr. Katherine Brandt (Barbara Walsh) is writing a monograph on Ludwig van Beethoven (Bob Stillman). Specifically, she is examining his 33 variations on an obscure little waltz written by Anton Diabelli (Ward Dales). She becomes obsessed with Beethoven’s interest in the waltz and with the nature of the composer.

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For Gazette theater writer Bill Buell's preview of this show, click here.

Early on, we discover that Brandt has been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis). She, nevertheless, travels to Bonn, Germany, to examine Beethoven’s original compositions and begins a lifelong friendship with Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger (Eileen Schuyler).

Brandt’s daughter, Clara (Julie Jesneck), follows her mother to Bonn when she discovers that the disease is progressing much faster than expected. Clara’s boyfriend, a nurse (Mark Scheibmeir), accompanies her.

Centuries fall away

During the process of Brandt’s research, we are introduced to the ailing Beethoven and his loyal servant, Anton Schindler (Kevin Gardner).

Kaufman’s great skill as a writer intertwines the lives of these characters and even at times gives them overlapping dialogue and causes centuries to fall away. For an audience, it is an enchanting experience.

Never mind that the play tackles the harsh realities of illness, broken families, difficult friendships and damaged psyches, its themes are uplifting and life-affirming. We are told, for instance, that ALS “forces intimacy.” Brandt and her daughter have ever been at odds, but the disease requires levels of physical therapy that bring Clara and her mother closer than ever.

As Dr. Brandt, Walsh gives a masterful performance. Her body language, as the disease takes hold, indicates her increasing helplessness but never undermines the energy of the acting. Bob Stillman offers a commanding Beethoven who, even in his darkest hours of suffering, manages to swagger and boast. It is a thrilling performance.

Jesneck plays Clara with the soul and sadness of a daughter wounded by her mother’s fame and demand for perfection. Schuyler displays the surface efficiency of the no-nonsense librarian but allows the character’s warmth and compassion to express itself. Gardner is notable for his depiction of a tenacious servant of a demanding master and for his impeccable comic timing. Scheibmeir and Dales round out the cast with skill.

Solid all the way around

The production values are superlative. The set by Tobin Ost (who also designed the remarkable period and present-day costumes) is unified by books that are gray volumes inviting one into the mists of history. Lights by Michael Gilliam define the acting areas and serve the many moods of the show.

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