Saturday, October 13, 2012

Cloverdale Playhouse: "Opus"

Full Disclosure: The reviewer is a member of the Board of Directors of The Cloverdale Playhouse

To say that The Cloverdale Playhouse's production of Michael Hollinger's witty, provocative, and poignant Opus is setting a high theatrical standard for Montgomery is an understatement. Artistic Director Greg Thornton has gathered a five-member ensemble of local veteran actors and bright newcomers who present a near pitch-perfect ninety-minutes of point and counterpoint exchanges that have audiences alternately laughing and crying at the harmonies and dissonances at the core of this play.

Staged in the round (a first in the Playhouse) on Mike Winkelman's spare set complimented by Madison Faile's sheet-music panels, and Danny Davidson's character-based costumes, Mr. Thornton moves his actors -- portraying a fictional string quartet called The Lazara after the creator of two remarkable instruments they play -- in continuous shifts of musical chairs as they rehearse, squabble, and try to define both their lives and the nature of a string quartet who "must play together as if with one bow".

Coming off a triumphant tour, The Lazara have been invited to play at the White House, but have just fired Dorian [Cushing Phillips], a brilliant visionary, but difficult musician dependent on prescription medications, and hire Grace [Desire Gaston], a young woman whose audition for the job parallels Dorian's accomplishments.

Each character has a back-story that is revealed bit by bit. Dorian has always been jealous of his lover Elliot's [Mark Hunter] playing the first violin part; Alan [Matthew Givens] playing second violin is in an unhappy marriage and is a kind of Lothario who romances younger women, and seems to be attracted to Grace; and the cellist Carl [Scott Page] is afraid that his cancer is recurring. Even Grace is unsure of her career path, and is torn between accepting the job or auditioning for the Pittsburgh Symphony.

So there you have it: a story about sex, drugs, and -- well -- chamber music.

On hiring Grace and realizing her potential, the quartet decide to play "Beethoven's String Quartet #14 Opus 131" at the White House, one of the most demanding pieces that requires absolute attention to details and intercommunication among the musicians. -- Along the way, we are treated to several episodes that show how seasoned the Playhouse's actors are.

With truthfulness and complete commitment to their roles, it seems that the audience is eavesdropping on actual events, and the subtle development of character and situation throughout has us eagerly awaiting every nuance and each shift of allegiance. Their respect for Mr. Hollinger's insightful script, its taut dialogue, its ability to focus on very real & alarming human issues, its sometimes dark humor, and its inherent musicality, as well as their apparent respect for one another, makes for an invigorating evening of theatre at its best. Mr. Thornton has masterfully got them to respond as a quartet who anticipate one another's moves and achieve a balance of tempo, rhythm, and dynamic that seems effortless.

Even their "playing" the instruments [the sound track is courtesy of the Vertigo String Quartet] is so expertly timed, that it seems they are actually playing.

There are a lot of twists and turns in the plot -- and a number of surprises -- that keep us interested from start to finish, and while we might prefer one character to another, the most impressive thing is the clear and generous ensemble performance. In the words of Dorian: like playing the best music, this production of Opus is "wonderful -- terrifying -- beautiful".