by Ken Keuffel
Steve Umberger normally avoids using the word “unprecedented” to describe his projects. But when he talks about the collaboration at the heart of Moisés Kaufman’s 33 Variations, the play he’s directing, he can’t help himself.
“It really is true,” he said. “It’s never been done before.”
The collaboration is unusually wide-ranging, drawing on the expertise and talents of everyone from music professors and medical doctors to student actors and the people who teach them. It has paired Wake Forest University with Festival Stage of Winston-Salem, which is presenting 33 Variations beginning Feb. 7 at Hanesbrands Theatre. The opening-night performance follows a final dress rehearsal on Feb. 1 that’s open to the public and previews that begin Feb. 2.
Kaufman has emerged as one of the leading playwrights of his generation. He also authored The Laramie Project and Gross Indecency: Three Trials of Oscar Wilde. The 2009 Broadway production of 33 Variations earned five Tony Award nominations, including for one for best play and another for leading actress (Jane Fonda). Festival Stage’s production of 33 Variations is being billed as the second to be staged in North Carolina.
In Variations, Katherine Brandt (Alison Edwards), a musicologist afflicted by ALS, strives to understand what drove Beethoven (Warren Kelley) to compose his “Diabelli” Variations, a masterwork for solo piano. The action shifts in time from present-day Bonn to 19th- century Vienna, where Beethoven is working.
Just as Beethoven copes with the progressive loss of his hearing, Katherine struggles to complete her life’s work before her disease overtakes her. She is also trying to reconcile with Clara (Amy Shackleford), her estranged daughter.
An onstage pianist (Louis Goldstein, a music professor at WFU) plays parts of “Diabelli” Variations during and between scenes of the play, with different variations meant to complement the emotional and dramatic content of different scenes in the play. Variations also features singing and dancing.
ALS is also known as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.” It “mostly affects upper and lower motor neurons, which are the nerve cells that control movements of the arms, legs, face, diaphragm, throat and tongue,” reads a definition at the website for Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center.
Edwards is learning as much as she can about ALS so that her knowledge of the disease might inform her portrayal of somebody afflicted by it. The same goes for Shackleford, though her research is enhancing an understanding of what it would be like to have a loved one with the disease.
But instead of just reading literature about ALS as part of their research, Edwards, Shackleford and Jim French, who is playing a nurse named Mike in the play, have also consulted with faculty and staff at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, particularly those from its ALS Center, which is led by Dr. James Caress.
Caress said by email that the assistance consisted of offering “background on ALS progression and what a patient with ALS may experience in and outside of a clinic setting.”
“Our team and one of our patients met with the cast and answered their questions related to (Katherine Brandt’s) experience so they could accurately portray the reality of this illness,” Caress said. “Our team also coordinated the donation of medical equipment to be utilized as props in the show. To gain further details and instruction from therapists, the director and several of the cast members attended one of the ALS clinics that the Medical Center provides.”
Edwards said “it’s been fantastic for us to have all these resources.” She said she has gained a much better understanding of how ALS weakens muscles—a process she described as beginning in one hand, going to another and eventually affecting the legs.
“You keep dropping things,’” Edwards said, recalling what a patient with ALS told her. Edwards said she also came to appreciate the struggles associated with ALS—for example, getting out of breath and having a difficult time maintaining one’s balance.
As for other things that the WFU-Festival Stage collaboration is accomplishing, Umberger pointed out that several roles in Variations are appropriate for actors of or near college age. So as part of Festival Stage’s partnership with Wake Forest University, two WFU theater students have been cast in key roles with the goal of giving them more professional experience: Amy Shackleford, a junior-year theatre major, and French, a recent WFU graduate who’s begun working professionally.
John E. R. Friedenberg is the director of theater in the Department of Theatre & Dance at WFU. He welcomed the casting of Shackleford and French.
“The opportunity for our students to participate in an extended project with working professionals and the chance to experience the demands of a professional career while still in school is immensely valuable to any young emerging artist,” Friedenberg told broadwayworld.com.
Several WFU professors are also making artistic contributions to the show, including pianist Goldstein and Brook Davis, who’s serving as the show’s artistic director. Christina Tsoules Soriano is helping stage the dancing that’s part of the show.
The “ability for our faculty in both theatre and music to collaborate professionally with the artists and staff of Festival Stage in circumstances that allow our students to see us working as artists outside of an academic context adds to our teaching, and their education, in a unique and elegant way,” Friendenberg said.
Festival Stage of Winston-Salem will present 33 Variations Feb. 1-24 at Hanesbrands Theatre, 209 N. Spruce St.
Final dress rehearsal is Friday, Feb. 1, at 8 p.m.; all tickets in sections A, B and C are $12. Preview performances are scheduled Saturday, Feb. 2, at 8 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 3, at 2 p.m., and conclude with the 88.5 WFDD Preview on Wednesday, Feb. 6, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets for preview performances are $18 (sections A and B) and $12 (section C). The play’s official opening night is Thursday, Feb. 7, and performances run Wednesdays through Sundays through Feb. 24 with tickets ranging from $12 to $35. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. on Wednesdays and Thursdays, at 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, with 2 p.m. matinees on Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays.
VIP Balcony seating packages are available for all performances, including final dress rehearsal and previews. The package includes two seats at a private table and a bottle of wine for $60 total.
Tickets may be purchased online at www.hanesbrandstheatre.org, by calling 336-747-1414 or visiting the Hanesbrands Theatre Box Office Monday-Friday, noon to 6 p.m. and one hour before each performance.
In addition to the production, Festival Stage will present special events including a film screening and pre-show talks on issues relating to the play:
- Sunday, Feb. 3 – 1 p.m. (Free; Hanesbrands Theatre lobby) Beethoven scholar Dr. William Kinderman shares insights into the composer’s life and work. Kinderman, who was a consultant to 33 Variations playwright Moisés Kaufman, will also give a concert and lecture at Wake Forest on Monday, Jan. 28.
- Monday, Feb. 4 – 7:30 p.m. ($10; Hanesbrands Theatre) Screening of Amadeus, the Academy Award-winning 1984 film about the rivalry between composers Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri.
- Sunday, Feb. 10 – 1 p.m. (Free, Hanesbrands Theatre) Talk by Dr. Jim Caress, director of the ALS Center at the Wake Forest School of Medicine, about current treatment into the disease and consulting on the Festival Stage production.
- Post-show talks with members of the cast follow each Wednesday and Thursday night performance.