Story: The Lazara Quartet is a classical music group of considerable talent and acclaim, so much so that in the past year they have been the subject of a documentary. Now, their noted achievements in recordings and in performances around the world have caught the attention of The White House, where they have been asked to perform for the President in a televised concert.
That would seem to be pressure enough for anyone. However, first violinist Elliot, second violinist Alan and cellist Carl frantically are searching for a musician to replace violist Dorian, whom they have fired because of his chronic disruptions. Unfortunately, Dorian also was the most skilled of the quartet. They are reassured, though, when a young violist named Grace impresses them at her audition.
With less than a week before their White House engagement, they must blend Grace seamlessly into their sound and technique, even as they worry about Dorian’s rapidly declining psychological state and Carl’s upcoming visit with his oncologist for a hoped-for clean bill of health from the cancer that struck him five years earlier. On top of all that, Elliot decides that they should perform Beethoven’s Opus 131, “the greatest quartet ever written,” but also an exceedingly tough task.
Highlights: Playwright Michael Hollinger abandoned his musical training at the Oberlin Conservatory at age 22, deciding that the rigor of incessant practice and behind-the-scenes obligations required of a string quartet player were more than he wished to assume. Instead, he turned to writing, one of the results of which is this intriguing and complex, one-act drama that premiered in Philadelphia in 2006.
Hollinger essentially sets the tempo of his one-act piece, which moves back and forth in time over its several scenes in musical style, showing the gradual disintegration of Dorian’s role in the group and Grace’s subsequent ascendance.
Much like its subject matter, Opus focuses both on the unit as a whole as well as the individual performers, offering interludes where each of the players has center stage, so to speak. For the second time in less than a year, St. Louis audiences are being treated to a local production of Opus, this one at The Rep directed by Brendon Fox, who takes the reins for his fifth production of Hollinger’s work.
Other Info: Fox by now surely is a bit of an expert on Hollinger’s spirited study, and most of the audience on opening night was duly impressed with the performances of his cast in this look into the obsession necessary to achieve greatness. However, I must admit that I found last year’s performance by the West End Players Guild a more intimate and much more engaging presentation.
Perhaps that’s because the players in that rendition literally were mere feet away from the audience, as the floor of the performance space became the stage. There also seemed to be, though, more humanity in the actors’ interpretations of their roles. On stage at The Rep, often that humanity seemed submerged or too distant. As a result, for me the performance rarely was engaging or affecting.
When it was, though, Matthew Boston as Dorian was in the middle of the action. A scene early in the drama, when Dorian displays a priceless violin to Elliot, his lover and performance partner, is haunting in both its beauty and sadness.
Beautiful as you behold the look of astonishment and giddy rapture in the eyes of Dorian and Elliot (James Joseph O’Neil) as they behold a priceless instrument, and sadness as one sees Dorian’s spirit wilt when Eliot dismisses his request to “switch off” their instruments for a time in the Lazara Quartet. It is obvious at that point that Dorian will not be rising from his emotional death.
O’Neil comes across as clinical and single-focused through much of the performance, making Elliot difficult to like or understand. Chris Hietikko does well with the more approachable role of Carl, a family man who seems to be secondary in the democratic ways of the group, deferring usually to the instincts of Elliot or Dorian.
Greg Jackson keeps second violinist Alan suitably submerged behind the histrionics of Dorian and Elliot. Alan is a divorced man who points out to the young Grace the pitfalls of endless travel, the blurring of cities and hotels and the loneliness of the long-distance string player. As Grace, Rachel Jenison adds the perspective of youth and idealism that the others have replaced in some part with professionalism and an acceptance of their way of life.
James Kronzer’s scenic design includes a mirrored backdrop on either side of his rather austere set, which features the familiar chairs and stands used by musicians on a clean, uncluttered wood floor. Patricia Collins’ lighting captures subtle silhouettes of the players on those adjoining mirrors, while Rusty Wandall’s sound design places the audience effectively in various locales.
Holly Poe Durbin’s costumes appropriately define the players both on and off stage, while Kronzer and Naftali Wayne add projection design. Greg Johnston aptly provides the voice of the group’s British recording producer.
The Rep utilizes the high-caliber contributions of Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra musicians Eva Kozma, Bjorn Ranheim, Shannon Farrell Williams and David Halen, who show the performers the proper way to ‘bow’ their instruments, although the actors don’t actually play them.
The Rep’s Opus is long on style but falls short on emotional substance. The often tempestuous Ludwig van Beethoven likely would be disappointed in the outcome.
Company: Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Venue: Browning Mainstage, Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
Dates: Through February 2
Tickets: $20-$76; contact 968-4925 or www.repstl.org
Rating: A 3.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Jerry Naunheim Jr.