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A CurtainUp Review
In the world premiere of Opus at the Arden Theatre company, Michael Hollinger has summoned the muses Euterpe, Polyhymnia, and Brian Wilson. He has turned out a play so exquisitely written that you want it to be flawless.
At the end of the performance I attended, a third of the audience rose to its feet, but something held the rest in their seats. They applauded heartily, liked it-- but to a degree short of the tribute of a standing ovation. The whole still needs to add up to more than the sum of its parts, and the composition of the denouement's flashpoint, although carefully plotted, lays over the organic groundwork like a cage. That fairly serious issue aside, there are a lot of things to love in Opus's fine display of virtuosity and craft.
The story concerns members of a celebrated string quartet who have their backs against a wall. At the 11th hour they have replaced their violist with a gifted, but inexperienced player, Grace. Furthermore, Grace has never played Beethoven's difficult Opus 131, the work chosen for their imminent performance at the White House. (And yes, the White House elicits little political jibes.) The urgency to prepare for this career-crowning performance, which will be widely televised, drives the story. The string quartet, described as a national treasure, has serious internal problems that are revealed to the newcomer and shown in flashbacks of the making of a documentary about the musicians.
A compelling current runs under the action as the back story opens up amid rehearsals. It is learned that the obsessive Elliot, first violin, and Dorian, the brilliant, psychologically fragile violist, had a long-term relationship that is over. It is touching that the love song of these fine classical musicians was a Beach Boys ballad. It's hard to conceive that their partnership worked for as long as it did, given their vastly different temperaments-- Dorian's artistic soul and mental issues, and Elliot's perfectionist, efficiency-expert approach to life and music. Elliot insisted that the group fire his lover from the quartet because of his unreliability, or perhaps because Elliot jealously guards his first violin position. As the play opens Dorian has gone missing and suicide is feared.
Complex characters are revealed and evolve, some benign and some ominous. All the parts are extremely well cast and beautifully acted. Patrick McNulty gives a fearless performance as Elliot, and David Whalen is a wonderfully poetic Dorian. Douglas Rees ably handles the role of Carl, the cellist, who has been fighting cancer. He appears to be a stable, down to earth influence on the group, but his health is in question. Greg Wood warms to the role of Alan, the low key, reasonable second violin, and delivers one of the best performances I have seen in his long association with the Arden. Grace, a young woman who has tough choices to make with a somewhat stacked deck, is played with charm and intelligence by Erika Cuenca.
The group's interaction is reminiscent of birds who will peck and squabble on the ground, but who, in flight, soar together in smooth and seamless movement, hooked into wind current and a single flock-mind. With the quartet, we see mostly the squabbling, with brief glimpses of the soaring. Hollinger's words operate among the characters as if they were shared music. And despite his tiered, stylized use of language, the dialogue sounds natural, laced with repartee, bickering, and poetry. The clashes and jealousies among these diverse personalities counterbalance each other and emerge somehow harmonious -for awhile. There's a nice punctuation at the end of scenes. Most end with a verbal hit that works like Shakespeare's capping couplets.
The actors are not musicians. When they mime playing their instruments, it is both frankly fake and meant to look real at the same time. They sync their actions with recorded music, imitating the bowing, but not the fingering. This choice is wise in that is saves them from appearing ridiculous. Still, the technique sidelines attention to the surface issue of verisimilitude.
There are twists and surprises along the way, and the biggest among the quartet's array of problems is made increasingly clear. One of the ways this problem ultimately is dealt with is unlikely in the extreme and even gratuitous, as if a metaphoric pistol buried in the play had to go off, believable or not. Alan's affecting closing monologue, filled with wishful-thinking, is too little too late. The damage to the play has been done.
Meticulously directed by Terrence J. Nolen, who totally "gets" Hollinger's work, Opus is polished smooth. Nolen's had plenty of practice, having directed the world premieres of Hollinger's Red Herring, Incorruptible, An Empty Plate, In the Cafe Du Grand Boeuf, Tiny Island, and Tooth and Claw. Under Nolen's direction the interplay of the scenes' different energy levels and tempos emerges, aided by the lighting and music. James Kronzer's set is stunning in its simplicity. Working with sound designer Jorge Cousineau, The Addison Quartet from Curtis recorded the impressive music. Despite the problem in the resolution, Opus is quite magnificent.
LINKS TO REVIEWS OF OTHER HOLLINGER PLAYS
An Empty Plate in the Cafe du Grand Boeuf
Tooth and Clawl
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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>6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by our editor.
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