Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - June 11, 2010

Tour de force

'Opus' is a masterpiece — and a master class on the drama of living as an artist today

by Jeanie K. Smith

The last show in TheatreWorks' 40th season brightly examines the personal and professional lives of a successful string quartet, bringing us into an artistic world few get to see or experience. Witty and intriguing, this newest work from American playwright Michael Hollinger shows us the soaring heights of making beautiful music along with the challenges that come from putting four (or five) artistic temperaments in one room.

Himself a former professional violist, Hollinger knows whereof he writes; these are fully realized characters, caught in professional dilemmas in part to do with the mercurial world of music, but also with their particular personalities.

We meet Elliot (Richard Frederick), an ambitious and domineering violinist who engineers much of the Lazara Quartet's professional path; Alan (Jackson Davis), the second violinist content to have staked his claim with a world-renowned group; Carl (Kevin Rolston), the cellist who seems to be level-headed and focused on the big picture; and Dorian (Mark Anderson Phillips), the brilliant but perhaps doomed violist, who can't kick his personal bad habits to stay in the quartet.

The fictional Lazara Quartet is already successful — but is facing a major crossroads in its career, and there is no road map. Society will not notice, much, if it fails to continue — but the personal and professional lives of its members will forever be changed.

Enter Grace (Jennifer Le Blanc), an attractive and naive viola prodigy auditioning for Dorian's seat, and the mystery begins to unfold. Did Dorian threaten Elliot? Was it just a lover's spat, or more serious? Did Elliot treat Dorian fairly, or with malice? Is Grace going to stay with the quartet, or take a "safe" job with a minor orchestra? Are she and Alan embarking on a fling? Will Carl live to finish the Beethoven cycle? Will the White House appreciate the collective genius of their command performance? And who really owns the enigmatic Lazara twins?

All this and more is revealed, scene by scene, in a tour-de-force performance by five superb actors in a tightly written piece. The wit is wonderful, and the discussions embedded in the play about art and music-making are worthwhile, lyrical expressions of the sublime joy of collaborative creation, or diatribes on the difficulties of dealing with artistic passion. In a culture where the artist must fend for him or herself, it's refreshing to hear these characters speak of their compelling desire to pursue their art in spite of all the odds against making a living doing it.

The artistic world can also be cutthroat, as artists jockey for position, scrambling to carve out their niche, make their name, align themselves with success, before the opportunities vanish. One muffed audition could spell death to a career; making a wrong choice now could turn into a dead end later. The stakes couldn't be higher, and Hollinger nails it for the intense cauldron it is.

TheatreWorks has assembled a first-rate cast, all of whom turn in terrific performances. Davis and Phillips are well-known to local audiences, and both fill their characters to perfection. Frederick as Elliot manages to create empathy for a relatively cold character, and keeps us on the edge as to Elliot's motives. Rolston as Carl is outstanding as the deceptively self-effacing and low-key cellist, who surprises everyone. Le Blanc has just the right mix of coy and cunning for Grace, the hapless but not-so-naive young prodigy.

Director Meredith McDonough stages the work cleverly and keeps the pacing tight, so that the piece moves smartly and with precision — not unlike a fine musical opus. The illusion of the musical performance is nicely done, when it might have been a distraction. Her handling of comic effect is excellent. Most of all, the heart, the passion of the work, is clear and ultimately quite touching.

Eric Flatmo's innovative set design vibrantly glows with color. He and lighting designer Chris Studley create a beautiful ambiance to match the intensity of the action and the music. There were times when I found the actors difficult to hear, and wished they were miked; otherwise, Cliff Caruthers' sound design enhances the production greatly.

This is a new work in its regional premiere, and you may not have heard of it before now. Don't let that keep you from catching this excellent production, one that you'll remember long after.

What: "Opus," by Michael Hollinger, presented by TheatreWorks

Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St.

When: Through June 27, at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday & Wednesday; 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday & Sunday; and 7 p.m. Sundays

Cost: Tickets are $29-$62.

Info: Go to http://www.theatreworks.org or call 650-463-1960.

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