‘33 Variations’ explores limits of life
Beethoven’s challenges contrasted with an American musicologist

By JULIE McHALE - TimeOut Theater Critic

March 16, 2017

From left, Michael Chobanoff as Ludwig von Beethoven, Carl Liden as music publisher Anton Diabelli and Cory Klein as Anton Schindler in Waukesha Civic Theatre’s “33 Variations.”
Carroll Studios of Photography

WAUKESHA - A totally fascinating experience awaits you in “33 Variations” by Moisés Kaufman. Two lives are examined as each person living in different worlds faces the end of his life, making choices as to how to live out his final days.

The story rotates back and forth between the struggles of Ludwig von Beethoven (1770-1827) and an American musicologist called Katherine, who spends her final months in Bonn, Germany, Beethoven’s birthplace, studying his notes to determine his motivation for writing “33 Variations,” based on a motif found in Diabelli’s musical composition.

Anton Diabelli (Karl Liden), a composer of little note, had an idea to publish a book based on original works of well-known composers, each of whom would submit one variation on a work by Diabelli himself. At first Beethoven (Michael Chobanoff) refused, saying he was working on another project and didn’t have the time.

This was not a happy time for the accomplished musician. With his faithful companion Anton Schindler (Cory Klein), he was fighting poverty and progressive deafness, a condition that started to afflict him at the early age of 25. But he was very gifted and very obsessive about his music.

Katherine (Beth Perry) had received a diagnosis of ALS, often called Lou Gehrig’s disease. It is a very debilitative illness, but she is determined to finish her thesis on this Beethoven mystery, so despite her daughter Clara’s (Ruth Arnell) warning to stay at home near her doctor, she made the journey by herself. In her research, she finds a friend and a mentor in Gertie (Paula Garcia), the librarian in charge of old manuscripts at the Bonn Library.

Besides the parallel stories between the German composer and a woman who idolized him, this story also deals with Katherine’s relationship with her only daughter.  Katherine is a driven woman who lives by her brain more than her heart. Their relationship is strained at best, for Katherine is obviously disappointed in her daughter’s tendency to flit from one interest to another instead of dedicating herself to one passion, as she herself did.  Parental expectations can often serve as a barrier rather than an inspiration and a means of establishing a loving bond.

As Katherine’s condition worsens, Clara, along with her boyfriend and nurse (Nicholas Callan Haubner), a man whom she met during one of her mother’s medical visits, go to Bonn to be of service.

At times both Beethoven and Katherine speak directly to the audience. There is also a pianist on stage who performs some of the composer’s variations on Diabelli’s theme. (Julie Johnson executes his works with sensitivity and aplomb.) The whole play is structured in a very innovative way.

Besides the creative concept inherent in the script, the careful individuation of each character, the very capable actors, one and all, that comprise the cast, and the masterful direction of Dustin J. Martin, the production is quite an astounding theatrical tour de force for a community theater. I can’t imagine a professional one surpassing its excellence. Don’t let this one get by. It’s unforgettable.

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Note: Due to an omission on my part, in my recent preview of spring plays, I failed to mention the Waukesha Civic Theatre’s next production, “The Drowsy Chaperone,” which opens April 28.

It was an oversight on my part, for which I deeply apologize. After all, the WCT is one of my favorite places to spend my time.

“33 Variations”

The drama runs through March 26 at the Waukesha Civic Theatre, 264 W. Main St., Waukesha. Call 262-547-0708 or visit