Theatre review: 'Opus' pulls all the right strings

For the News-DemocratJanuary 13, 2014 

A vivid portrait of music-making, "Opus" focuses on the personal turmoil behind the artists' achievement in a string quartet. It's a democratic effort in theory but not necessarily in execution.

The intricate behind-the-scenes craft is plumbed by Michael Hollinger in this intriguing drama, which includes prickly soap opera issues as the personalities emerge. With Swiss-watch timing, Brendon Fox has directed a fluid production at The Rep, which explores the dynamics of this chamber music group, now through Feb. 2 on the Mainstage.

The process of making music has always fascinated me -- something so universal yet complex. The artists who produce such profound sound are not only talented but often driven, demanding -- and yes, temperamental. When individual musicians enter a group, that means a synergy takes place where the sum must be greater than the parts for them to achieve greatness. And as human nature enters into the equation, this delicate combination can be torn apart by ego and real life issues. The elusive ingredient of chemistry also figures into the success or failure.

Scenic designer James Kronzer's simple practice room set -- with sheet music doors -- allows the actors to immerse themselves in the music as they seek perfection. And they do make the music come alive, appearing like they have played together for years. Kronzer designed the set for the show's premiere in Philadelphia and subsequent productions, including off-Broadway.

The renowned Lazara Quartet's Elliot, Carl and Alan have fired unstable genius Dorian, who was also the lover of the "leader" Elliot, and audition an eager young violinist, Grace. Through flashbacks, we see the drama that interfered with the music-making. We also learn a few details about their private lives. The new four spend much time practicing for an appearance at the White House, which will be televised. The difficult "Opus 131" by Beethoven is the piece they will perform.

While we move from scenes, we're treated to snippets of Beethoven, Bartok and Bach, and even the Beach Boys. On stage, the actors must mimic playing the instruments, and were superbly coached by members of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, learning how to hold their bows and appear to be masters of the strings.

Perhaps because of his emotionally-charged character, Matthew Boston stands out as the odd-man-out, while the current foursome are convincing in their roles, they seem on equal footing. James Joseph O'Neil's Elliot is arrogant, pompous, no-nonsense, while Chris Hietikko is more likable, a family man who is in remission from cancer. Greg Jackson's Alan softens situations with humor, and newcomer Grace, played confidently by Rachael Jenison, is figuring out her place in the group.

Rusty Wandall's superb sound design and Patricia Collins' outstanding lighting design add to the different moods from present-day to flashback.

A sharp study of musicians at work, "Opus" provides an interesting look behind closed doors while giving us an opportunity to appreciate the glorious compositions they strive to master.

The play runs 1 hour and 40 minutes without an intermission.

What: "Opus"

When: through Feb. 2

Where: The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, 130 Edgar Road. St. Louis

Tickets: Call the box office at 314-968-4925 or go to www.repstl.org

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