Tuesday, January 14, 2014

OPUS • The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

While members of a string quartet may enjoy more autonomy than members of an orchestra, the strong opinions of an intimate group of talented musicians is a ready mixture for conflict.  Michael Hollinger, a violist-turned-playwright, takes a look at the inner-workings of the fictional "Lazara Quartet" in his 2006 play, "Opus", currently receiving a slick production at the Rep.

During a brief introduction to the original members of the quartet -- violinists, Elliot (Joseph O'Neil) and Alan (Greg Jackson), violist Dorian (Matthew Boston) and cellist Carl (Chris Hietikko), the love for the music and their instruments rings true, and their predicament of losing Dorian who has recently disappeared, becomes apparent.  We begin as Grace (Rachael Jenison), an incredibly talented young violist, auditions for Dorian's spot and impresses the group with her sight-reading.  She is offered the job on the spot, but is also considering a job as principal viola at the Pittsburgh Symphony.  She ends up taking the job in the quartet, opting not to be a "slave to the baton",  and though she's excited for the unique opportunity, she's also a little anxious about joining this group -- aware of the notoriously contentious dynamics within quartets in general, and this one in particular.  With a televised appearance at the White House coming up in less than a week, rehearsals begin immediately and it's crucial that Grace learn the music, and gain her footing within the Lazara Quartet quickly.

James Joseph O'Neil (Elliot), Chris Hietikko (Carl)
and Greg Jackson (Alan).
©Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
The backstory of the ensemble is sketched in with flashbacks, shedding light on the acquisition of the exquisite18th century Pietro Lazara violin and viola that the group was named after, as well as Dorian's departure, allusions to his "history with chemicals", and his relationship with Elliot, the overbearing first violinist and leader of the group.  Grace is given a warm welcome by the divorced, likable but road-weary Alan, who is warned to keep his relationship professional with the young newcomer.  Carl, a family man with a health history of his own, balances Elliot's rougher edges with a tendency towards congenial mediation, until he's pushed.

James Joseph O'Neil (Elliot), Greg Jackson (Alan),
Rachael Jenison (Grace) and Chris Hietikko (Carl).
©Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
They decide to perform Beethoven's notably challenging 40 minute Opus 131 -- a piece the ensemble tried, unsuccessfully, to record years earlier.  The pressure of the piece and the growing tension within the group culminates on their big night at the White House.  The evenly paced tempo of the play is shifted into high-gear near the end, and Hollinger 's climax proves to be explosive, if not a little overwrought.

The actors, with the help from members of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (Eva Kozma, Shannon Farrell Williams and Bjorn Ranheim), mimic their playing adequately (I played the violin for about a year, so…  It’s tricky) and Brendon Fox's direction highlights the consuming love these people have for their art while the personalities of the individual members are clearly drawn.

Matthew Boston (Dorian).
©Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Boston's Dorian, the temperamental musical genius, simmered with unpredictability and O'Neil was equally intense as Elliot.  Hietikko and Jackson provided nice breaks from the angst in the more good-natured roles of Carl and Alan.  Jenison navigates the terrain within her new family carefully as Grace, and is comfortably believable in her role, despite a huge wig that ages her.

James Kronzer's scenic design evokes a concert space vibe with beechwood walls featuring sliding panels that accommodate various locations.  Kronzer and Naf Wayne's projection design provided images of richly beautiful stringed instruments and sheet music, adding some nice eye-candy during the transitions.  Rusty Wandall's sound design engages as it underscores, panning through the house, or standing in as the sound of the musicians "playing", with nice touches also from lighting and costume design, provided by Patricia Collins and Holly Poe Durbin, respectively.

Chris Hietikko (Carl), James Joseph O'Neil (Elliot),
Rachael Jenison (Grace) and Greg Jackson (Alan).
©Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
The Rep's production is an interesting look into the unique lives of ensemble musicians, and it's a handsome one worth checking out.  It's playing until the 2nd.


Written by Michael Hollinger 
Directed by Brendon Fox
Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
through February 2 | tickets: $20.00 - $76.00
Performances Tuesdays at 7pm, Wednesday to Friday at 8pm, selected Wednesdays at 1:30pm, Saturdays at 5pm, selected Saturdays at 9pm, Sundays at 2pm, selected Sundays at 7pm

James Joseph O'Neil (Elliot) and Rachael Jenison (Grace).
©Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Matthew Boston* (Dorian), Chris Hietikko* (Carl), Greg Jackson* (Alan), Rachael Jenison* (Grace) and James Joseph O'Neil* (Elliot).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Scenic design by James Kronzer; costume design by Holly Poe Durbin; lighting design by Patricia Collins; sound design by Rusty Wandall; projection design by James Kronzer and Naf Wayne; consulting musicians, Eva Kozma, Shannon Farrell Williams and Bjorn Ranheim; stage manager, Champe Leary; assistant stage manager, Tony Dearing.

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