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posted: 8/17/2012 6:00 AM

Suburban actor explores Beethoven's torment in TimeLine's '33 Variations'

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  • A modern-day musical scholar (Janet Ulrich Brooks, left) works to figure out why Beethoven (Deerfield's Terry Hamilton) devoted so much time and energy to his "Diabelli Variations" in TimeLine Theatre's "33 Variations."

      A modern-day musical scholar (Janet Ulrich Brooks, left) works to figure out why Beethoven (Deerfield's Terry Hamilton) devoted so much time and energy to his "Diabelli Variations" in TimeLine Theatre's "33 Variations."
    Courtesy of Lara Goetsch

  • A modern-day musical scholar (Janet Ulrich Brooks, left) works to figure out why Beethoven (Deerfield's Terry Hamilton) devoted so much time and energy to his "Diabelli Variations" in TimeLine Theatre's "33 Variations."

      A modern-day musical scholar (Janet Ulrich Brooks, left) works to figure out why Beethoven (Deerfield's Terry Hamilton) devoted so much time and energy to his "Diabelli Variations" in TimeLine Theatre's "33 Variations."
    Courtesy of Lara Goetsch

 
By Brian Singer

Actor Terry Hamilton has gotten used to playing some pretty complex and larger-than-life characters.

He's played American traitor Benedict Arnold in "The General from America," famed physicist Niels Bohr in "Copenhagen" and disgraced former President Richard Nixon in "Frost/Nixon" -- a role that earned the Deerfield resident a Jeff nomination.

"I liked playing Nixon because he was from my time," Hamilton says, "and I enjoyed getting into the details of how he handled the Vietnam War -- it made him more human to me, which is what an actor does for the audience."

Now he is slated to play another famously complex man -- Ludwig Van Beethoven -- in TimeLine Theatre's production of "33 Variations."

The role required about four months of preparation. Hamilton read a few biographies, but tried to stay away from Hollywood portraits of the composer.

"I had no idea how much he suffered," Hamilton notes. "He was constantly ill and tormented -- not a happy man at all even though he was considered a genius of his time."

One of those torments was his deafness. The musician began to lose his hearing while in his twenties. As a way to explore Beethoven's deafness, the director, Nick Bowling, suggested Hamilton blast Beethoven's works in his ears from his iPod while rehearsing a scene to experience how the composer must have felt when trying to communicate with people.

"It was very difficult; I had to read people's lips to understand what they were saying, then I had to learn how to carry that into my performance," Hamilton says.

The variations mentioned in the title are based on Beethoven's "Diabelli Variations," in which he took a simple waltz by Anton Diabelli and wrote different variations of the piece for the piano. It was a work that was started in 1819 and finished around 1823.

Diabelli, a well-known publisher, sent his waltz to all the significant composers of that time, asking them to write a variation of it for an eventual collection. Beethoven initially refused, believing writing a variation would be beneath him. He later changed his mind and wrote 33 of them instead of just one.

The play, by Moises Kaufman, jumps between past and present as a modern-day scholar -- suffering through her own health issues -- tries to decipher why an ailing Beethoven would have devoted so much time to this project. A pianist plays the 33 variations throughout the performance.

The story is more than just a musical mystery, however.

"The story is about what it means to give up," Hamilton says, "how being so involved in the struggle of the creative process can actually release creativity."

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