David Whalen in Opus
(Photo © Mark Garvin)
David Whalen in Opus
(Photo © Mark Garvin)
In Michael Hollinger's new play Opus, currently being presented by Philadelphia's Arden Theatre Company, the members of a string orchestra reflect on the transient nature of their work while performing a famed Beethoven composition. But a more pressing problem snaps the musicians out of their philosophical reverie: Bitter fighting within the group threatens to tear them apart.

Hollinger trained as a violist at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, and this experience shows in his writing. "The sound, the rhythm, pace, and even suggested pitch of the lines are very important to me and have a musicality all their own," he remarks. He goes so far as to indicate Pinteresque pauses in the dialogue, the way a composer would use rests, even specifying the amount of time that should pass between speeches.

While he has written both musicals and pop songs, Hollinger hesitates to refer to himself as a composer. "I think of a composer as someone who wears a tuxedo," he quips. "I wear jeans." And, indeed, he has been best known as a playwright ever since the then-emerging Arden Theatre produced his first theatrical effort, An Empty Plate in the Café de Grand Boeuf.

Given the ephemeral nature of theater and music, does Hollinger think much about posterity? "I would be lying if I didn't say that I secretly hope my plays will be performed after I'm gone," he says. "Nothing really lasts forever -- not even Shakespeare. But he hasn't worn out yet!"

-- A.K.

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Curious Theatre Branch's production of Play
is part of No Danger of the Spiritual Thing
(Photo © Kristin Basta)
Curious Theatre Branch's production of Play
is part of No Danger of the Spiritual Thing
(Photo © Kristin Basta)
"How do we survive with psychic emptiness and spiritual lack?" wonders Beau O'Reilly, co-founder and artistic associate of Chicago's Curious Theatre Branch. While there's no easy answer to that question, he feels that the work of Samuel Beckett may provide a clue. That's why the company is presenting a season-long Beckett celebration and why O'Reilly is one of the organizers of No Danger of the Spiritual Thing: 100 Years of Beckett, a program of short plays that is being presented at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) from January 13 through 15 and at the Prop Thtr from January 20 through February 5.

For this unusual event, Curious is joined by the Chicago-based companies Greasy Joan & Co., The Hypocrites, Lucky Plush, and Prop Thtr. They will present different pieces, often in contrasting styles. "It's a place to mix up the forms," explains O'Reilly. "One of the things that's interesting about working on the fringe and doing new work in Chicago is that there's a tremendous overlap; we're as likely to be influenced by a music piece or performance piece as we are by a piece of text."

At MCA, the various performances are being staged in unique locations, including a stairwell, a freight elevator, and a fish pond. "Audience members are divided into groups and are led through the museum," says O'Reilly. "You're experiencing the whole building as you see the different pieces." All of the groups end up in the MCA's theater space at the end of the program, and they see one work together. When the program moves to the Prop Thtr's black box space, O'Reilly remarks, "some real adjustments will be needed because of the sprawl of decisions that the artists have made." Certain pieces will only be performed at the MCA, while others -- including Catastrophe and That Time -- will only be performed at Prop Thtr.

"No danger of the spiritual thing" is a quote from Beckett's Play, which Curious is presenting in the freight elevator at the museum. "The piece is about isolation and rot, with three characters in urns that suggest death urns or garbage cans," says O'Reilly. "The actors' make-up is exaggerated so that they're corpse-like. It makes sense to do the piece in a very small space; there's this feeling of containment in the freight elevator that really appeals to us. We have done Beckett works twice before, always in the dead of winter. It's not even on purpose; it's just what draws our psyche. People come really wanting it, needing something of Beckett's crabby beauty to get through the hard times."

-- D.B.

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Alena Dzebo and Dylan Trowbridgein Return (The Sarajevo Project)
(Photo © Chris Gallow)
Alena Dzebo and Dylan Trowbridge
in Return (The Sarajevo Project)
(Photo © Chris Gallow)
Artists such as Susan Sontag and Judith Malina have gone to Bosnia and have commented on the country's volatile political situation, but the emerging Toronto-based company Theatrefront is taking a different approach with Return (The Sarajevo Project). This new play explores the difficulties of a Bosnian who has moved to Canada to escape the war and is now trying to return home.

This project began when company member Christopher Morris traveled to the war-torn country in 2003 and literally went door-to-door to find potential collaborators. Eventually, he found the renowned director Faruk Loncarevic, who was so impressed by the Canadian company's ideas, dedication, and open-mindedness that he invited the Theatrefront troupe into his studios. The Canadian actors quickly learned that the Bosnian style of performing is much less tied to naturalism than what we normally see in North America.

For example, in an early rehearsal, both teams of actors interpreted a breakup scene. Says Theatrefront's artistic director, Daryl Cloran, "The Canadian actors did this lovely, intimate thing where they just talked; but when the Bosnians did the same scene, the woman grabbed the man and threw him to the ground." The play was developed through improvisation. When it was finally showcased in one sold-out workshop performance in Bosnia, the audience was almost equally divided between local Bosnians and visiting Canadians, with each group laughing at jokes in its native language.

Next up is a production in South Africa, for which Theatrefront will team up with that country's illustrious Baxter Theatre. Since South Africa has a dizzying number of official languages, the show -- about seven lonely souls who change each other's lives -- is going to be movement-based. "I've been proud of what we've achieved so far in finding ways to integrate this story that only these two groups of people could have built together," says Cloran.

-- A.K.