August 22, 2015
When you base it on the synopsis, "33 Variations" does not sound an easy show to watch. This straight play runs for almost three hours, about two subject matters which most people will not exactly consider thrilling. The first is Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) and the second is Ludwig von Beethoven. Yet if social media raves were to be believed, this play has been playing to excited audiences since it opened about three weeks already. After much delay, I finally got to watch the matinee show today, before it ends its run tomorrow.
Musicologist Katherine Brandt is at a crossroads in her life. She wants to go to Bonn, Germany in order to find out the answer to the mystery why Beethoven obsessively wrote 33 variations out of a simple waltz Katherine considered to be mediocre. However, even as her mind is still very much vital, her body is slowly being progressively debilitated by Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). On the personal front, Katherine also struggles to connect with her only daughter Clara, a relationship that is getting more strained with the years.
Shamaine Centenera-Buencamino plays Katherine Brandt with such internalized passion. The role is inherently difficult. She to show the physical ravages of ALS (the limping, the slurring, the choking) along with the emotional nightmare it brings along with it. Her determined performance in the whole of Act 2 as the disease was worsening while Katherine clashes with her best friend and her daughter was so heart-wrenching to watch.
I had seen Teroy Guzman before playing King Lear in glorious Filipino in a PETA production. In this play, Guzman will be playing wild-haired musical genius Beethoven during a difficult phase in his life where he was struggling with poverty and gradually losing his hearing. His big moment was in Act 2 when he was describing and acting out the tormenting process of creating a particularly tricky variation. That one scene (with pianist Ejay Yatco and all the lighting wizardry of John Batalla) is by itself worthy of the admission price already.
Rem Zamora was a delight playing the stuffy Schindler, a professed "friend" of Beethoven who serves him hand and foot. Paolo O'Hara can sometimes feel out of the period the "contemporary" way he acted as musical lightweight Diabelli. But I appreciated it eventually because his witty interactions with Zamora provided the rare islands of humor in this verbose sea of despair.
Roselyn Perez's role as German music library curator was very limited but she was able to mine the most out of it especially when her character Grete warms up and becomes Katherine's close friend. She has the funniest scene of the play when she suggests to Clara something which she thought would arouse Katherine flagging nerves. Frankly though, in the total analysis of the play, that scene could have been cut out without affecting the storytelling. However, Perez really had fun with that scene and it was refreshing to see.
Ina Fabregas and Franco Chan, new actors, play Katherine's daughter Clara and her nurse boyfriend Mike. Fabregas was good, but still rather tentative in the way she was acting. Her best scene would be that when she found out about Katherine's exit plans. Chan, on the other hand, is an acting natural, shining in that classical music concert scene in Act 1 and that "I am only a nurse" confessional scene in Act 2.
If there was something that really bothered me during the time I watched this play, it was the sound quality. I am not sure if it was the acoustics of the room or the microphones, but from where I was sitting, I could not understand every word that was being delivered by the actors, particularly Ms. Shamaine herself. It was a shame that I could not fully appreciate the show-stopping scene of Act 1 where all the characters were speaking because I could not make out most of the lines. That scene looked good, but unfortunately, it did not sound good for me. It did not seem to bother the other members of the audience because they greeted that scene with loud applause.
The set design by Ed Lacson, Jr. was very smart in its economy, with the windows of WhiteSpace lighting up to show Beethoven's "sketches" (or rough musical drafts) when the music is played. Pianist Ejay Yatco was always in full Beethoven character throughout the show where his piano is front and center of the whole performance area. The period costumes were very elegant as designed by Raven Ong.
Jenny Jamora was very brave to take on the direction duties of this complex (occasionally disjointed, occasionally meandering) 2007 play written by Moises Kaufman as her directorial debut. Based on the audience reaction at curtain call, she has succeeded.
"33 Variations" will end its month long run today August 23. It will still have two final shows at 3 pm and at 8 pm. The play venue is at the WhiteSpace, along Chino Roces Ave. Ext. in Makati. Tickets are selling from P1000 to P1500 via Ticketworld or at the venue.