Theatre Review: The Moonlight Sonata of Beethoven Blatz by Armin Wiebe


The Moonlight Sonata of Beethoven Blatz had its world premiere with Theatre Projects Manitoba on April 17,2011, at the Rachel Browne Theatre in Winnipeg.

Whatever images float through your mind when you listen to Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” will forever be transposed, like mine, to include a prairie pioneer’s cabin interior. That is, if you attended a recent performance of Armin Wiebe’s first play, Th e Moonlight Sonata of Beethoven Blatz.

The play opens with our early pioneer, an earnest yo ung Mennonite husband named Obrum, pushing an old, beat-up piano into his humble abode. We learn that he has acquired it along with a Russian Mennonite maestro, who has recently escaped the horrors of the anarchist bloodbath following World War I. We don’t know how he escaped, or what he has suffered through that experience, but it is enough to know that he lost his love there, a violinist named Sonya.

Obrum appe ars to have rescued this poor man in order to have him teach his young wife, Susch, to play something beyond the theme of “Chopsticks” that he is able to assist her in. What is never completely clear to the characters is whether or not Obrum really intended to have Blatz also assist in solving the problem of a two-year marriage that had yet to produce a progeny. This longing on the part of the rural couple becomes the central theme of the play.

Wiebe has added a midwife, Teen, who has longings of her own, but no way to realize them in this restrictive religious environment. It is she who brought young Obrum and Susch together in the first place. Her motives for doing so remained a mystery to me, and I think that her lesbian tendencies could have been more fully developed without losing the overriding innocence of the piece. However, her presence is a needed element, acting as a link between this farm family and the village tongues flapping about the impropriety of Blatz’s residence in their home. Obrum remains unperturbed over this gossip, as it is as common to have village tongues flap as it is to have “the rooster crow on the manure pile.”

I felt a sense of playful delight as the story unfolded. The earthy humor of the inhabitants of this world was a delicate counterbalance to their struggles, as they tried to realize their dreams. Some of these “wantings,” like Obrum and Susch’s longing for a child, and Blatz’s need for an environment in which to create and heal, could be realized with a little creative planning. Teen’s inner desires, however, would have to remain hidden, finding their outlet in helping other women bring new life into the world.

Armin Wiebe

Armin Wiebe

Wiebe’s former work, including his breakthrough first novel, The Salvation of Yasch Siemens, has also centered on the comings and goings of rural Manitoba Mennonites, living their own quiet, and in Wiebe’s hands, absolutely hilarious lives. While the humor may be a little more gentle in his first outing as a playwright, all of the earlier charm and warmth remains. The respect he has for his characters is clear, even as he shows them to sometimes be confused by their own desires. The actors’ performances were nuanced and believable.

Director Kim McCaw brought Wiebe’s words and characters to life, in a humanizing way that allowed the audience to identify with them, even without an understanding of Mennonite traditions. Brian Perchaluk’s set presented them with a perfect environment. The tiny “grain shed house” gave the players room to move, while aptly keeping them confined just enough to show us the tension of three people sharing a small space, one of them being athird wheel to the young couple.

Aside from the lovely visual appeal of the cozy homestead, the other factor lifting this material off the page is the musical score--not only Beethoven’s gorgeous melody and the Blatz character’s own composition, but also the sound design by Greg Lowe, which breathed life into this prairie landscape.

A certain practicality comes from living in a harsh climate. While Blatz can hear the music of the fields, the farmers who work the land know how hard they must toil to stay alive. While Susch wishes that “just maybe once those long fingers could milk the cow,” she also experiences the transformative powers of his music, which makes her “want to smile and cry at the same time, so pretty it is, like a mourning dove cooing back to a person.”

All of the language we’ve come to know and love in Wiebe’s novels is recognizable on the stage. His ability to paint vivid images is undiminished, even without the prose of his storytelling. Susch describes Blatz crawling over the piano “like a long legged spider,” or in going away, “Poof, like a dandelion gone to seed.”

I absolutely adored all the Plautdietsch words and phrases, and sprinkling of High German, from my Mennonite childhood, but wondered if an audience who didn’t understand them would lose something in the unfamiliar dialogue. That musing was quickly answered by the enthusiastic response that erupted after a joke that I thought no one else would catch. Some things translate very well without needing to be understood word for word.

Just as Blatz so often demanded of Susch, “Hear once you this,” so too should readers heed the voice of Armin Wiebe, a writer well worth listening to. His unique, humorous perspective on the traditional Mennonite people who came to the prairies to quietly live out their lives in peace, is forever enchanting.

About the Author

Talia Pura

Talia Pura (nee Wiebe) is a Canadian playwright, actor, aerial artist and filmmaker. Her plays have been performed across North America. Cry After Midnight isbased on experiences in Afghanistan as a Canadian Forces’ ‘war artist’, and was chosen for the Woman Playwrights International Conference (WPIC) in Stockholm, 2012. STAGES: Creative Ideas For Teaching Drama, revised 2nd edition and CUES: Theatre Projects from Classroom to Stage, were published by J.G. Shillingford in 2013. Her five dramatic shorts have been screened at film festivals and on television. Aerial dance credits include a film commission from the Vancouver Olympics, 2010. A member of ACTRA & EQUITY, she enjoys acting for both stage and screen. Talia teaches drama at the University of Winnipeg.