Southern Repertory Theatre kicks off its season of recent and classic works with 33 Variations, a play exploring one of Beethoven's later compositions — the acclaimed Diabelli Variations, exploring a simple waltz by little-known Austrian composer Anton Diabelli.
33 Variations debuted in 2007, and a production opened on Broadway in 2009, directed by author Moises Kaufman and starring Jane Fonda. Kaufman is a cofounder of Tectonic Theater Project (The Laramie Project), and he also wrote Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde.
In 33 Variations, musicologist Katherine Brandt tries to discover why the legendary composer, who was coping with deteriorating health and growing deafness, devoted so many of his later years to the Diabelli Variations. Brandt suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and as her health also fades, she struggles to maintain her relationship with her daughter and to find inspiration in Beethoven's efforts and triumphs. The stories progress in parallel and eventually converge.
"There's a beautiful image of the past and the present where Beethoven and Dr. Brandt are together on stage," says Southern Rep artistic director Aimee Hayes. "Seeing that image, it's what we always strive for. That's why we make theater, so we can connect to the past and the present, and we leave the audience with the idea of the future."
33 Variations is co-produced by MESA Production Company, a nonprofit organization that combines artistic events and community outreach. Director and MESA cofounder Stacey Arton says that once the decision was made to produce 33 Variations, the next step was to look for community partners. Because the character Brandt has ALS, Arton said it was a natural fit to join forces with the ALS Association Louisiana-Mississippi Chapter and Team Gleason, the foundation created by former New Orleans Saints player Steve Gleason, who was diagnosed with ALS in 2011.
Arton says that talking to members of the ALS Association gave her a new perspective on the drama, and she stresses that 33 Variations touches on, but is not about, ALS.
"This play is about life," says Arton. "Though it shows [Brandt's] struggles, what the play is really about is how both she and Beethoven push past those struggles."
Several special events are being organized in conjunction with the play. Gleason will attend the Thursday preview, which honors people with ALS and their caregivers. Gleason also plans to attend a reception Sept. 20, when all proceeds from that night's show are donated to ALS Association Louisiana-Mississippi Chapter and Team Gleason.
Other events include a free performance of the Diabelli Variations at Loyola University (7:30 p.m. Thursday; Louis J. Roussel Performance Hall) by William Kinderman, a music scholar who consulted with Kaufman on 33 Variations from conception through production. Kinderman also will discuss and perform excerpts of the Variations at the CAC at 1 p.m. Friday.
Following 33 Variations, Southern Rep's season features plays at different venues around the city. An adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice is scheduled at Ursuline Academy Nov. 13-24. In winter, Southern Rep moves to Mid-City Theatre for the world premiere (in conjunction with the National New Play Network) of The Totalitarians (Jan. 26, 2014-Feb. 23, 2014). San Francisco playwright Peter Nachtrieb's gritty and dark comedy explores spin, manipulation and dishonesty in politics. The season concludes with Tennessee Williams' The Night of the Iguana at Michalopoulos Studios (March 12, 2014-April 6, 2014), where Southern Rep staged A Streetcar Named Desire in 2012.
"It was such a refreshing thing to leave our space because suddenly we were in neighborhoods," Hayes says. "We were interacting with the people in those neighborhoods, and we just loved that."
After leaving its longtime home at the Shops at Canal Place in early 2012, Southern Rep spent last season in residence at the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC). Hayes says scheduling conflicts at the CAC resulted in the company performs at other venues. The theater's notable recent productions at alternative venues include The Lily's Revenge at the Den of Muses in Bywater. Hayes says the CAC was never meant to be a permanent home for Southern Rep. She sees this season as a chance to explore other venues as the theater searches for locations for Southern Rep's future home, and she hopes their audience will come along for the ride.
"We've gotten really good at it," Hayes says. "You rent a truck it, you load it in. Every place has its unique attributes, and I think the designers, the actors, the director, everybody has to rise to that challenge, and that's really thrilling for us."