Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Reverend’s Interview: Gay Theatre Master Guides Fonda’s Return

As Moisés Kaufman was writing his play 33 Variations, he didn’t anticipate that two-time Academy Award winner Jane Fonda would ultimately appear on stage for the first time in over four decades to play the leading role. That’s exactly what happened, however, and both Fonda and Kaufman received Tony Award nominations for their work on the 2009 Broadway production. 33 Variations is having its first Los Angeles production, headlined by Fonda, starting tonight through March 6 at the Ahmanson Theatre. Kaufman directs, as he did in New York.

“It has been fantastic working with Jane,” Kaufman reported during a January phone interview. “She’s not only a great actress but a wonderful human being. It’s been wonderful to watch her become part of a company of actors, especially since it is her first time in a play in over 40 years.”

Fonda plays Katherine, a present-day musicologist who becomes intrigued by Beethoven’s obsession over what would become 33 variations of a waltz he composed during the final years of his life. Kaufman’s play transports the audience back and forth between modern New York City and 19th century Austria as Katherine tries to solve the mystery. Zach Grenier, also a Tony nominee for the original production, embodies Beethoven and Samantha Mathis (Grey’s Anatomy) plays Katherine’s daughter.

“Most of the original cast is still intact; it’s a wonderful ensemble,” according to Kaufman. Although Fonda, who is now 73, is better known as a movie star with such classic films as Klute, Coming Home, On Golden Pond (in which she co-starred with her father, Henry Fonda) and Barbarella on her resume, she got her start on the stage. The New York success of 33 Variations marked a sweet homecoming for the actress.

Kaufman has been the guiding force behind such acclaimed GLBT-interest theatrical works as Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde (writer and director), I Am My Own Wife (director) and his controversial The Laramie Project (writer, with members of the Tectonic Theatre Project, and director), about the murder of gay student Matthew Shepard. Kaufman also helmed the 2002 film version of the latter.

“In 33 Variations, both Beethoven and Katherine are outsiders in their respective worlds,” Kaufman said. “That theme of the outsider, the other, has always been of interest to me, whether it’s Matthew Shepard, Oscar Wilde, or Katherine in this play.” Kaufman was born and raised in Venezuela, and is of Romanian and Ukrainian Jewish descent.

When I asked about the initial inspiration behind 33 Variations, Kaufman related, “I became obsessed with why Beethoven became obsessed” with his final composition. The original Broadway production of Kaufman’s play wracked up an impressive total of five Tony Award nominations.

Kaufman reflected at length on a question I posed about whether 33 Variations had any specifically GLBT content or interest. “It is interesting that a gay playwright would explore the outsider idea through non-gay characters,” he said. “Neither Beethoven nor Katherine are gay or lesbian, yet both are pushing boundaries and find themselves isolated as a result.” GLBT theatergoers will likely relate to their plight.

Once the Los Angeles production of 33 Variations has opened, Kaufman will return to New York and begin staging the Broadway production of Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. Robin Williams (another Oscar-winning actor known primarily for his movies) will star in Kaufman’s latest play which, in an ironic reversal, had a tryout run in Los Angeles two years ago.

“One is always very fortunate as an artist when one is able to continue developing their craft,” Kaufman says of his growing success and reputation. “I’m exploring very much the same themes while pushing the boundaries of theatre as a space for artistic expression.”

Interview by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Blade California.

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