Opus at Park Square Theatre

May 15, 2011
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Paul de Cordoba, David Mann, Emily Gunyou Halaas and Stephen d'Ambrose in Opus. Photo by Petronella Ytsma.

Park Square Theatre is turning plays about classical music into a minor specialty.  They recently produced (it opened the night of the Big Blizzard) 2 Pianos 4 Hands, a lively and affecting mediation on failure: what happens when you devote your life to an instrument only to discover that you don’t – quite – have the talent necessary for genuine success?

The characters in the theater’s latest opus, Opus (Park Square Theatre through May 29), display no such self-doubt.  They are musicians at the top of their profession, playing in an internationally renowned string quartet (the Lazare), lionized, elitist, forging firmly forward.  They waste no time reflecting on their one-in-a-million luck.  Occasionally they do wax poetic about the amazing music they play, as when Grace rhapsodizes, beautifully, about the “dark, chocolate sound” of a special viola, or when Dorian theorizes that, still playing at the age of 90, he’ll come to a musical rest, and “just stop.”  Lovely.

But such lyrical moments occur, imo, a tad too infrequently.  Playwright Michael Hollinger stays focused on the bitter and often nasty politics surrounding the quartet’s exquisite music.  The gifted but troubled violist, Dorian, has flushed away his (extensive) psychiatric medication and disappeared without a word.  The quartet, frantic, hires Grace, whose sweet and shy exterior belies a fierce vaunting ambition, to replace Dorian.  The quartet prepares for a command performance before that well-known connoisseur of chamber music, George W. Bush.  Hollinger uses flashbacks effectively, as he develops a troubled relationship between Dorian and Elliott,  builds the quiet cellist Carl’s health problems, deals with the quartet’s efforts to play the difficult Beethoven Opus 131, etc.  Not all these plot devices make sense: why would Grace, with a chair in the famous Lazare Quartet, deviously audition for the lowly (one assumes) Pittsburgh Symphony?  Why would Carl destroy a two million dollar violin?  All in all, though, Opus works even if it doesn’t always completely satisfy.

And the actors are, to a person (and under the firm direction of Mary M. Finnerty), wonderful.  Peter Christian Hansen is marvelous, completely convincing as the passionately troubled Dorian.  He wisely avoids off-putting scenery-chewing.  Every time he and Elliot (the excellent Paul de Cordoba) are together, erotic sparks fly.  Stephen D’Ambrose does wonders with the quietly grounded Carl; his work is understated and very affecting.  David Mann plays Alan with sturdy comic fair.  Finally, Emily Gunyou Halaas, in a difficult role, lets Grace gush and blush but still manages to give her dignity and resonance.  We never doubt Grace’s talent.

Indeed, Opus presents us with five performers who are, like the players they portray, at the very top of their game.  They make this play well worth seeing.

For more info on John Olive, please visit his website.

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