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Wagner rates “Opus” at top of ‘must-see’ list

By Staff | Jan 14, 2010

The Florida Rep has kicked off the new year with a first-rate production of “Opus” by playwright/musician Michael Hollinger. This violist-turned-playwright not only effectively created five distinct characters, he also captured their emotionally charged artistic temperaments as well as their rehearsal and performance practices a very tall order for this swift moving, tightly written, well crafted play, currently holding audiences enthralled for 90 minutes at the Arcade Theater.

Hollinger has written a very insightful play, with plenty of expressive intensity about the unraveling emotional strings of the world-renowned Lazara String Quartet. The plot focuses on this celebrated string quartet as they prepare for a high-profile performance at the White House. The tale is complicated by the dropping out and disappearance of one of the quartet’s founding members – a brilliant but unstable violist – and the auditioning and hiring of a gifted young woman to replace him.

Kudos go to Director Maureen Heffernan for choosing to explore the steadiness of the string quartet that comes from playing together for so long, instead of centering on the passions and slow simmering of a nest of personal grievances. Heffernan considers the matter of music making with the overview of an intimate, appraising eye, while showing us the sweat and drudgery, the delicate balance of personalities that lie behind the creation of seemingly effortless musical performances. Her refreshing direction exactly reflects the elegant music of Bach, Beethoven, and Pachalbel the string quartet plays. As for the onstage playing of classical music by actors, Heffernan wisely chose to not concentrate on the fingering of the string instruments but instead centered on accurate bowing, thus making it easier for the audience to accept that the actors are actually playing.

The understated Set Design of a wooden viola-shaped, moveable platform by Ray Recht could not be more ideal and in keeping with this stylish play. The same can be said for the Lighting Design by Matt McCarthy and Costumes by Roberta Malcolm.

Once again Heffernan must be congratulated, this time on choosing the plus-perfect cast for “Opus.” This is a strong, well-balanced cast. Rachel Burttram shines as the quietly strong, yet vulnerable, talented newcomer Grace. Her performance is both nuanced and seamless, true to the character she portrays.

Giles Davies has nailed his character Elliot to a T. He is faultless in his role as the domineering leader – an arrogant, quick-to-bristle and quick-to-argue personality over any objections to his decisions on tempo or dynamics. Chris Clavelli as Alan couldn’t be better; his character is the second violinist – the hail-fellow-well-met comic peacemaker of the quartet. He is the first to warmly welcome newcomer Grace into the intimate group, filling her in on all the dirt, the functions and dysfunctions of this musical family. As the family-rooted cellist Carl, Tom Nowicki adds a wonderfully, effective stability to the portrayal of his character, a man who tries to maintain a calm distance from the many spats within the group. Add to this his interesting back story of being cancer survivor, and you add yet another strand to the panoply of this many-stringed complex of personalities and plot. Brendan Powers plays Dorian, the ousted member of the quartet with amazing animation, taking the stage with expressive physical actions and facial reactions. Powers captivates every time, in his many entrances and exits throughout the play; overall, his depiction of the eccentric, brilliant and “buggy” violist brought true variance and punch to the play.

I was fortunate to see this play twice last week, once in preview on Tuesday, and once opening night on Friday There are so many wonderful dialogue lines I tried to recall and couldn’t the first time around, Here are but two of my favorites:

“A string quartet is like a disease between four reasonable people, a marriage with more fidelity” and “He doesn’t make music, he extrudes notes, and it’s like making music with a kitchen appliance.”

Now I ask you, aren’t those the best?

This is one of those wonderful evenings in the theater that keeps the audience analyzing the quartet and wondering with anticipation as to how will it all end. “Opus” is one of those plays marked by a subtle intelligence and its illustration of the complex relationship between musician’s lives and their art. At the heart of “Opus” is the examination of the passion and self-sacrifice required to become an artist, musical or otherwise. These are questions that will remain with the audience long after the lights dim.

If you love an intelligent and bracing, brilliantly directed and well acted play, then “Opus” should be right on top of your list of must-sees. The Florida Rep’s production of “Opus” will be playing at the Arcade Theatre until Jan. 24th. Call the Box Office at 332-4665; or you can attend a special performance of this amazing play and cast right here on the island at BIG Arts on Jan. 28th. Either way, don’t under any circumstances miss seeing “Opus” and, when you go, remind ’em Marsha sent you.