Some dare to interpret Beethoven with greater creative license than others. Should an extra crescendo be inserted or is one best served by adhering to the strict definition of the Master’s sheet music? In the pursuit of perfection, it’s just one of many artistic questions, that in TheatreWorks’ Opus, often results in verbal assault, followed by an encore accompanied by hints of physical violence (“I’m going to rip your head off!”). There’s enough offstage bru-ha-ha, sexual escapades and drugs on-stage here to power the most jaded of road-weary metal band, let alone a White House calibre string quartet.
The standing ovation Opus received on this opening night was deserved, if not because of full-on emotional connection, at least for its superb technical execution. It’s a masterful exercise in lighting, set design, acting, and, even, “bow-syncing.”
“A String Quartet is like a marriage, but with more fidelity?” Or is it…
Like a sonata, the setting is simple on the surface, yet layers of character and rhythm emerge. The esteemed Lazara Quartet has fired its pompous, overly-confident and often dazed virtuoso Dorian (Mark Anderson Phillips) and must promptly find a replacement for the impending White House performance, a career-defining moment. Each of the three members have their own approach in the process of finding a replacement, and of ensuring the Quartet holds their place among the greats.
Alan (Jackson Davis) is mostly ambivalent—as long as he’s caffeinated. Carl (Kevin Rolston) is the peacemaker, and insists on decisions in lieu of prolonged, petty diatribes. Then there’s “pathologically punctual” Elliott (Richard Frederick), who sees himself, with Dorian’s departure, as a worthy heir to lead the group. But his micro-managing ways drive the others over the ledger.
Enter Grace (Jennifer LeBlanc), an accomplished, Symphony-level violinist. But is Lazara ready for its first female member? And can the group hold itself together under Elliott’s self-absorbed, insecure leadership, as Dorian’s memory lingers?
What makes Opus so effective is its ability to effortlessly take us into a world seldom explored. We witness the creative process, both when it struggles (take 17!), and when it succeeds. These musicians seek a connection not only with their audience, but also with the masters of music themselves; their instruments merely a device to channel the “electricity.” To buy into their passion for the craft, we must be convinced of their technical abilities and pursuit for ethereal glory. On all counts, the actors succeed.
The bow-syncing is precise, and perfectly believable. Although, I’m surprised the actors don’t move their fingers to fully mimic the motion. I assume they were instructed not to. Instead, they hold the end of their instruments with clenched fists. Perhaps it’s too much to remember, and detracts from the acting performance. Either way, a very minor observation. It is entertaining watching the quartet perform, their faces accentuating the pleasures of the crescendos, and the dramatic punches of the marcatos.
I refuse to play Hail to the Chief!
Stress is a necessary component of heightened performance, in any field. And so it is too here with these five talented individuals. We learn what it takes to rehearse for a White House performance, and then later get a backstage window into their harried last minute preparations, and thoughts (“But I didn’t vote for him!”).
Performances are strong, especially Mark Anderson Phillips who does wonderful work in conveying a brilliant man, very much on the brink. You don’t know with this guy. Is he a mad genius, or just a psycho with above average talent?
When the lights fade, we’re perhaps not as connected emotionally to the characters as they are too each other. Loni told me the same thing, and I snickered, because, after all, this befits the material itself. Classical music is, more often, about technical precision than it is about improvised in-the-moment passion.
The set is exquisite. Escher-like, the walls trail on angles exaggerating depth, and creating an expansive, cold rehearsal hall. During passages of passion or reverence, wall panels glow red, or white. It’s a beautiful effect.
So there are two standing ovations here. One seen, the other imagined but felt. Opus is truly a wonderful capstone to TheatreWorks’ 40th season, which has been, by all definitions, a smashing success.
Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts
4 out of 5 stars
Written by Michael Hollinger
Directed by Meredith McDonough
Starring Jackson Davis, Richard Frederick, Jennifer LeBlanc, Mark Anderson Phillips, and Kevin Rolson.
Through June 27