“Opus” Delivers The Goods As We Peek Into Artistic Creation And Catastrophe At The Rep

The quartet rehearses in "Opus" at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

The quartet rehearses in “Opus” at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Collaborative artistic endeavors are always problematic but a different set of circumstances arise when a string quartet strives for perfection. Where the phrase, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” holds true for most, in the case of making music together, beauty is in the “ear” of the beholder. Most differences of opinion encountered in “Opus” revolve around hearing discrepancies in tempo, phrasing, the inevitable “wrong” note or merely pacing. What normally would seem an odd choice for dramatic conflict, “Opus” (currently holding forth on the Mainstage at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis) proves the human dynamic will always provide tension and a fascinating story- even in the machinations of rehearsing a string quartet.

Chris Hietikko returns to the Rep stage as the lynch-pin, Carl- playing the cello while hiding a secret of his own. His steady work in the quartet and his love of music overshadowing all of the bickering seems to make him the one voice of reason in a sea of egos. Matthew Boston is great as the eventual “odd man out” in the quartet. He keeps the others at rehearsal long after they all agree that the “last take” was good enough. It’s never good enough for Boston’s Dorian- one of the reasons the lead violinist feels he should be let go and a replacement found. As first violin, Eliot, James Joseph O’Neil is perfectly persnickety as he finds fault with most everyone but himself. He seems to protest a bit too much when demanding everyone keep a curb on relationships within the group which also leads to acrimony.

James Joseph O'Neil as Eliot hands the rare Lazara viola to Rachael Jenison as Grace in the Rep's "Opus." Photo: Jerry Naunhem, Jr.

James Joseph O’Neil as Eliot hands the rare Lazara viola to Rachael Jenison as Grace in the Rep’s “Opus.” Photo: Jerry Naunhem, Jr.

Greg Jackson is superb as the laid-back Alan. Although a true artist, he prefers to keep most opinions to himself and go with the flow. Add to the mix a female, Grace, played with a tough mix of reticence and defiance by Rachael Jenison. She auditions as a replacement for Dorian’s viola part and wins over the other members but has a few other irons in the fire. Though hesitant, she eventually relents but disappoints the others as she keeps her audition date open to play with the Pittsburgh Symphony. The highlight for this Lazara Quartet is a gig at the White House where they plan to perform the difficult and longer than requested Opus 131 of Beethoven. Further complications arise when they become a hit at this concert but inner conflicts continue to drive them apart. A surprise return of Dorian leads to even more unexpected results that will change the group and the individuals forever.

Playwright Michael Hollinger is a viola player himself and draws, I’m sure, from personal performance and interaction to create the “quintet” we experience in “Opus.” It’s a marvelous look at the creative process and the inner workings of individual artistic temperament when put in the group dynamic of a string quartet. This is the second time this play has been produced in our area as West End Players Guild performed it last year. It’s one of those plays that deserves a second (or even a third) look to catch the many subtleties and “overtures” in perfecting musical form in one of the top groups in the country.

Backstage at the White House for the Lazara Quartet in "Opus." Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Backstage at the White House for the Lazara Quartet in “Opus.” Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Director Brendan Fox moves “Opus” along “accelerando” and really focuses on the relationship of the music and the quartet working in unison. Members of the St. Louis Symphony were on hand during rehearsals to instruct the actors in proper bowing and fingering techniques. While most mastered the bowing, most did not attempt to even move their fingers along the frets of their instruments let alone do it properly. A little matter, however, when the play has such an impact in all other aspects. The exciting set design of James Kronzer slyly replicates musical staffs and notes on the multiple doors that slide back and forth to represent different areas in the background as well as combining with Naftali Wayne in providing beautiful, broad projections during the scene changes. Patricia Collins’ lights also enhance the smaller than usual playing area and Rusty Wandall has masterfully replicated the musical creations that the actors reproduce on stage.

“Opus” plays in one act which is good for the continuity of the material. It plays at the Rep Mainstage through February 2nd. Give them a call at 314-968-4925 for tickets or more information.

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