Aug 20, 2015

[Theater] 33 Variations (Red Turnip Theater)

This year has felt like somewhat of a slow theater season for us given how months have gone by since our last play. There have been years when it felt like we constantly had to choose between one play or another. This year has been pretty steady and it has been a few months since our last theater jaunt with Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady.

And then came along 33 Variations, which immediately got some pretty interesting reviews and certainly seemed like a good venture. We had only ever seen Red Turnip Theater's run of Cock before, and we had enjoyed the show but had also felt there were opportunities for improvement.

This play was one with a really striking story told in a complex yet elegant narrative bridging two different eras in rather clever way. Plus it's a play about music without resorting to becoming a musical. The music is practically a character in the production but also a part of the setting and maybe even the time. The play had some pretty strong actors involved and they all worked together to create something magical.

Synopsis: 33 Variations  is a stage play Moisés Kaufman as inspired by the works of Ludwig van Beethoven. The Red Turnip Theater production was directed by Jenny Jamora and staged at WhiteSpace, Makati throughout August 2015.

We are introduced to Katherine Brandt (Shamaine Centenera-Buencamino), a musicologist who appears to be delivering a lecture about Beethoven. In particular, she seeks to answer the question of why Ludwg van Beethoven (Teroy Guzman) devoted so much time and effort into the Diabelli Variations - 33 variations based on a waltz  by Anton Diabelli (Paolo O'Hara). Things begin with a retelling of events based on the memoirs of Anton Schindler (Rem Zamora), a friend of Beethhoven who was present around the time that Beethoven began work the variations.

But as we see what had come before, we also find our more about Katherine. She's preparing for a trip to Germany to continue her research about Beethoven and his variations, although her daughter Clara (Ina Fabregas) is rather concerned whether or not she's fit enough to make the journey. They go in for a checkup before the flight and meet a young male nurse, Mike (Franco Chan) and he's clearly interested in Clara. But Katherine is indeed sick and this trip may be her last, but she is determined to see things through and finally finish her book.

When we watched the 9 Works Theatricals staging of The Last Five Years, I had been a little disappointed with some of the decisions made related to direction and blocking that sort of hindered the complex narrative structure of the play. This time around we again had a complex narrative involving two time periods and yet things were very, very clear all throughout. And I'm not just referring to the different costumes of the characters but just the way the blocking had been arranged and how the characters all moved around - all these things contributed to quite the compelling story.

Of course at the heart of this production is the sterling performance of Shamaine Centenera-Buencamino as Katherine, obviously the central character in the play. Her ability to carry the role makes or breaks the production and they certainly chose an actress with the necessary stage presence and experience to really bring the character to life. She has a firm command of the stage and her portrayal of her worsening condition was pretty spot on as far as I could tell. It can't be easy to act when you eventually play someone in a wheelchair after all, but she still managed to do just that.

In the other time period, Teroy Guzman's portrayal of Beeethoven was also quite moving and you could totally believe that he was indeed the maestro. Acting is more than just trying to look like someone - that's the role of a celebrity impersonator. No, in this case Teroy Guzman did his best to truly become Beethoven on stage and he thus delivered quite the interesting performance.

The set design was interesting. At its core, it still had that theater-in-the-round style that Red Turnip seems to favor and a general sense of minimalism. I liked how characters in different time periods were not limited to certain parts of the stage. Thus as Katherine goes over Beethovens sketchbooks in Germany, Beethoven himself can offer his notebook as the next one to be studied. The work table in modern day Germany can also become Beethoven's writing desk in past Vienna. And this goes on and on in a manner that supports the narrative but still doesn't make you feel all confused.

My only complaint really was outside the production itself - the venue and the quirky acoustics of Hall B. I'm not a bit fan of WhiteSpace since it feels like an over-priced version of the PETA theater, complete with uncomfortable monobloc chairs. And the larger hall combined with the need for live piano music dictated a need for mikes, which in itself wasn't bad. However the speakers were mounted high and in one direction, so it gave all dialog a weird echo quality that almost made it seem like everyone was projecting unnecessarily or maybe all voices were in fact from a god-like figure? It was quite distracting initially but in time we just did our best to focus on the play itself.

33 Variations was quite the lovely and engaging piece and one that tackles a lot of personal issues beyond Katherine's illness or Beethoven's motivations for his variations. It's a story about achieving one's dreams and not letting adversity and complications get in the way of things. And of course it's a story about music, and thus the play gets a good 4 increasingly diverse variations out of a possible 5.

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