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Opus

Michael Hollinger's play about a string quartet is unarguably theater at its finest.

By New York City
Douglas Rees, Richard Topol, David Beach,
and Michael Laurence in Opus
(© James Leynse)
Douglas Rees, Richard Topol, David Beach,
and Michael Laurence in Opus
(© James Leynse)
Right now, we can say that Michael Hollinger's play Opus, which has arrived at Primary Stages after having made its world premiere last year at Philadelphia's Arden Theatre, is not only the classiest and most sophisticated new production of the summer; it's unarguably theater at its finest.

A study in group dynamics, Opus explores the shifting nature of power within a tightly knit group of five musicians. At its simplest, the play is an elaborate and literal game of musical chairs as one of the five will always, inevitably, be shut out of the string quartet that serves as the basis of their relationship. More than that -- much more than that -- the string quartet is a living and breathing metaphor for the way people relate to each other.

Opus begins with each of the original members of the quartet talking to the audience about what it means to be a member of such a rarified musical group. Each has his own voice and his own way of approaching the subject. There is the understated but persuasive Carl (Douglas Rees) who plays the bass, and the animated and social Alan (Richard Topol) the second violinist who initially comes across as the play's narrator because he is, perhaps, the most like us. But the dynamics quickly change to reveal the first violinist and clear leader of the group, Elliot (David Beach) who is biting, driven, and controlling. Then we meet Dorian (Michael Laurence), the violist who reveals himself as the emotional centerpiece of the group as he speaks with a poet's heart about the beauty of creating music together in this most intimate of art forms.

Then, the play begins in earnest -- with a surprise. The group is holding auditions. Soon we learn that Dorian is no longer with the quartet, with no immediate explanation of what happened. Using carefully modulated flashbacks, the playwright slowly reveals the mystery of not only Dorian's expulsion but his disappearance. So, in addition to being an incisive character study, the play also satisfies as a mystery with an unanticipated twist.

Meanwhile, the group hires a young woman named Grace (Mahira Kakkar), a brilliant musician right out of school who must weigh the dangers of joining a famous quartet at a pivotal time in their existence versus the safety of a regular job in a symphony orchestra. She opts for the quartet and discovers that her first job with them will be an appearance at the White House, where the quartet will play Beethoven's fiendishly difficult Opus 131. The intense rehearsals for the Presidential gig give us insights into the give and take of personalities under stress as they work to get as close to perfection as humanly possible. The play comes to its multi-layered and considerably satisfying conclusion in the green room at the White House.

But it isn't the ending that makes Opus work as a distinctive piece of theater; it's the great pleasure of watching the process of artists at work. Director Terrence J. Nolen has fashioned his cast into an organic ensemble, made all the impressive by their virtual choreographic precision when they play together miming their movements in concert with Jorge Cousineau's exceptional sound design. (The music you hear, amazingly, is actually pre-recorded by a real string quartet.).

Moreover, the actors all give exceptional, beautifully embroidered performances that subtly and neatly mirror the nature of the musical instruments that they seem to be playing. At the same time, Justin Townsend's beautifully shaded lighting designs give texture and meaning to each scene, providing a visual counterpoint to the sound design.

It should come as no surprise that Hollinger is also a musician, since his intimate knowledge of the way a string quartet makes its magic is as fascinating as anything else in this richly entertaining play.


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