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Just Genius

All-time greats in music and math are at the center of two newly opened plays

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Genius is the subject of two plays that opened downtown last weekend. It's musical genius at work in Arizona Theatre Company's Beethoven, as I Knew Him, whereas mathematical virtuosity lies behind Beowulf Alley Theatre Company's Proof. But in each case, human failings and aspirations are what really drive the stories.

Beethoven, as I Knew Him is a portrait of the artist as an old man. Well, not terribly old; it primarily concerns Beethoven in his mid-50s, but he died at age 56, and, like they say in Catch-22, when you die, you can't get any older. Beethoven was a man in physical and psychological decline, but also a composer at the height of his creative power. He is, in the public mind, the ultimate Suffering Artist, a socially troubled deaf man who wrote powerful, innovative music.

Hershey Felder's musical one-man play is, like so many panegyrics to Beethoven over the past two centuries, unashamedly overwrought. But there's good reason: The show is framed as a reminiscence in 1870 by Beethoven's last surviving friend, and is based on a memoir by that man, Gerhard von Breuning. So we have to understand Beethoven, as I Knew Him less as a contemporary theater piece than as an evocation of the artist veneration rampant in the 19th century.

It's dangerous to impose biography onto music; a happy composer is perfectly capable of writing a searching, minor-mode slow movement, and a depressive can certainly produce a bouncy C-major allegro. But Romantic-era interpreters loved to argue that this or that composition issued straight from the composer's soul or psyche.

Felder's script succumbs to this way of thinking, but really, it's von Breuning's way of thinking—and it's a recollection, decades later, offered by someone who was merely 12 years old when he met Beethoven. If the great composer comes off as little more than an angry, misanthropic, eccentric, lonely, avant-garde figure, that's exactly how he seemed to the intimidated boy at the time. Felder makes this quite clear at the beginning; von Breuning admits that when he first encountered Beethoven, he thought he was being addressed by a filthy vagrant, and later, keeping the declining man company in his room, he sees Beethoven as an obsessive musical innovator who is literally deaf to the world.

What Felder offers is a technologically updated lecture-demonstration, 1870s-style. Von Breuning tells Beethoven stories, sits at the piano to ably play well-known Beethoven selections while talking about how they supposedly reflect events in the composer's life, and occasionally becomes Beethoven himself, raging about this or that against overloud recordings of his fifth and ninth symphonies. The audio work on opening night was not ideal, but Felder managed to get the point across. The best moments, really, were the quiet ones, especially Felder's touching delivery of the testament Beethoven wrote when he began to realize the severity of his deafness.

Two of the most successful elements of the production are the scenic design by François-Pierre Couture, and the rear projections by Andrew Wilder and Christopher Ash.

Felder leaves much out of his presentation, so at the end, he steps out of character to invite questions from the audience. On opening night, he almost had to bully questions out of the shy theatergoers, but those few extra minutes of information were almost as valuable as the intermission-less 90-minute performance that came before.

Mad genius is the subject a few blocks north of ATC's headquarters. Beowulf Alley Theatre Company has just opened David Auburn's Proof, a play that ATC presented seven years ago. ATC is an Equity house, while Beowulf Alley depends mainly on local, nonunion talent, but this new production holds up well.

To borrow from my previous synopsis of the play: Proof is set on the dilapidated back porch of a Chicago home, a place haunted by the morose, spectral Catherine—but she's not the family member who's dead. The dearly departed is her father, Robert, a brilliant mathematician whose life deteriorated into mental illness. Catherine, now 25, has spent what should have been her college years caring for her declining father. She seems to have inherited his mathematical gifts; perhaps, she fears, she has also inherited his mental disorder.

Exhausted, isolated and cynical, Catherine sits by while Hal, a young math professor and one-time disciple of Robert's, studies notebooks Robert left behind. One element of Robert's final illness was graphomania; he wrote compulsively, most of it nonsense. But he had revolutionized three fields of science while still in his 20s, and Hal doesn't want to risk overlooking some gem of an equation.

Meanwhile, Catherine's prim, professional older sister, Claire, has breezed in from New York to organize the funeral and maybe Catherine's life.

Eventually, Catherine leads Hal to a notebook like the others, except this one contains not gibberish, but a long, spectacular mathematical proof more advanced than anything Hal or his University of Chicago colleagues can fully comprehend. That's the first big surprise; the second is that Catherine, who dropped out of college as a sophomore, claims it's her work, not her father's.

Beowulf Alley's production, directed by Sheldon Metz, doesn't play up Auburn's flashes of humor as effectively as the ATC effort did, but the character interactions are, for the most part, more supple and nuanced. As the interfering Claire, Chris Farishon may sometimes seem a bit too overbearing, but perhaps that's only in the context of the restraint shown elsewhere on stage. Jill Baker is a fine Catherine, with a healthy dose of bitterness adding crackle to her mope, and she has good rapport with Roberto Guajardo as Robert, who has a lovely, affectionate monolog about bookstores in autumn. Jonathan Northover plays Hal with a delicate balance of shyness, confusion and multiple kinds of desire.

All this plays out on a fine set designed by Metz, who directs with that quality Auburn's characters so desperately desire: lucidity.

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