Opus | The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

 

Opus 75It’s fresh, different, and thematically a bit of a gamble for the The Rep, but it is a gamble well played — literally.

Opus 500

When I entered the Browning Mainstage Theatre to see Opus at The Rep, I was a little worried. I’ve never been one to read up on plays before I see them — I prefer to enter with a fresh mind — so all I knew about Opus was that it centered on a string quartet. I’ve been to the St. Louis Symphony once — in the fourth grade — and since then the extent of my symphonic listening has been string covers of pop songs. I enjoy the string sound enough, but I feared boredom.

However, instead of boredom, what I got was beauty, what I got was passion, what I got was struggle, what I got was Opus.

Opus stars five extremely talented individuals, each of whom plays a character whose personality is in a constant state of interactivity with the others in the group. For the music to be delivered flawlessly and to sound as its original composer intended, the four members of the quartet must play as one.

As you may have noticed, I just mentioned this was a five character play, and a quartet, by name, means there are four members in this instrumental family. This is where the major conflict of the play arises.

Opus opens with four musicians standing, spread out on the stage. They are answering questions for a documentary about their group, the Lazara Quartet, which at that time consisted of Dorian (Matthew Boston), Carl (Chris Hietikko), Alan (Greg Jackson), and Elliot (James Joesph O’Neil). This documentary was made a year or so before the events that are presently happening in the play. These documentary interviews interrupt present events throughout the play, giving the viewer an idea of the complexity that feeds and plagues such a group, as well as an idea for why in the second scene the group is holding an audition for Dorian’s replacement. Not only has he been fired, but Alan says that no one has seen him. The newbie the remaining members decide on is Grace (Rachel Jenison). She is significantly younger than the males of the group. Despite her bubbly, inquisitive personality exuded around the group, she fears the quartet will crumble due to constant bickering, and she is not about to go down with them if they do. I should also note, the group operates as a democracy. They vote on all decisions, and Grace has the final vote throughout the production.

The quartet is supposed to play at the White House — the most important performance of their careers  — and upon Grace’s hire, they have four days to rehearse their piece of choice: “Opus 131” by Beethoven.

As the play progresses the audience gets an exclusive look at the boiling tension that rests behind and leads up to the perfection of a quartet’s sound. I once had a teacher who said that the way one experiences theater has everything to do with the emotions they bring into it — whether they had a good day or a bad day, whether they’re irritated or depressed, happy or mad — and the same is true for the musicians of the quartet. They each come into rehearsals with different quips, affected by factors in their lives that, in some cases, they have no control over.

Inside the show’s playbill, there is a letter from The Rep’s artistic director Steven Woolf. In it, he states: “in some ways, the choreography of staging in this play is also like a piece of music. The transitions between scenes are complex but fluid, to illustrate the changes in locations often indicated only by a chair and music stand positions.” As I read this, I was struck by how true I considered it to be. There truly is power in whether there is a missing chair because a missing char is a missing person, and a missing person is a broken quartet, an imperfect sound. There is often music playing between scene transitions, which also aids Woolf’s comparison of the show to a piece of music. The entire production flows so smoothly that it was relaxing to watch, uninterrupted by an intermission. There is tension is classical music, rise and falls, sharp notes and soft ones, and the same can be said for the plot of Opus. James Kronzer’s set, which is boxy, simple, wooden and clean, combined with Patricia Collins’ lighting design gives the stage the look of a musical instrument.

Honestly my only complaint about the show was its final monologue. It’s clear that playwright Michael Hollinger intended for it to be powerful, but I found it to be a bit contrived. He seemed to be trying too hard to verbally make a point that the production was capable of exuding on its own: life is too short for bickering and materialism; one must instead play constantly, lest there be silence.

Opus is unlike any Rep production I’ve seen in the past. It’s fresh, different, and thematically a bit of a gamble for The Rep, but it is a gamble well played — literally. What I loved about Opus is that it doesn’t sound the same at the end as it does at the beginning, and for a play about music, that difference in sound is extremely significant. | Megan Washausen

Opus runs at The Rep through Feb. 2. For ticket information, visit http://www.repstl.org/.

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