“Opus” at the Cloverdale Playhouse scores, sets high bar for area theatre | Arts & Culture
By Randy Foster
Randy Foster is interim executive director at the Alabama Institute for Education in the Arts. He has been an educator and an active participant in the Montgomery arts community for many years.
Foster is a contributing writer for River Region Arts, an association promoting and supporting the arts in the River Region and surrounding areas. To share your event on the River Region Arts calendar or for more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (334) 593-2472.
Showtimes for “Opus” at The Cloverdale Playhouse are Thursday, Oct. 18-20 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, Oct. 21 at 2 p.m. Tickets available at (334) 262-1530.
“Opus,” the remarkable production currently on view at Montgomery’s Cloverdale Playhouse is a workplace look at the intricacies of power dynamics and internecine intrigue in a world-class string quartet. The title means just that: work or labor. We see the workings of the artistic process through rehearsal and recording scenes, as well as the labor of personal-professional entanglements. Simply put: you are unlikely anytime soon to see another area production that boasts an ensemble that is this consistently affecting, a physical look that is this appealing and a script that is this well-crafted and thought-provoking.
Playwright Michael Hollinger, himself a violist trained at Oberlin Conservatory, has composed a genuinely musical structure for his play. Ideas are treated as themes for variation. The way in which scenes are juxtaposed creates palpable counterpoint. There is a clear sense that themes that occur early in the play reappear for development later. When we think everything is final, there is a coda that literally completes this many-stringed work.
The play’s plot is fairly straightforward – the Lazara Quartet has its most major musical performance approaching and the members have fired their violist (Cushing Phillips), a man whose complicated history with music and meds is revealed equally by what he says – usually in flashback – and by what is said about him, by what we see and by what is implied. Enter a brilliant young musician to replace him; the only problem is that this musician is a young woman (Desire’ Gaston) whose presence further unsettles this already shaky cosmos.
All of this is played in the round (an apt visual and emotional metaphor) with some really handsome back-lit panels of music scores created by Madison Faile. Mike Winkleman’s lighting design is effective. Costumes by Danny Davidson, especially a lovely gown for Gaston, seem appropriate. Sound is essential to the success of this play and James Treadway masters this technical aspect. Peter Povey, music consultant, is an integral part of making this production seem real – each actor must appear to be making the music we hear – the bowing techniques, fingering, and general physicality are convincing. This is no small achievement for a cast who little more than a month ago had no experience even holding a stringed instrument.
Director Greg Thornton, as he did earlier in this premiere season at Cloverdale Playhouse, proves himself especially adept at eliciting high-quality, pitch perfect and emotionally-charged performances for his actors. He has made beautiful pictures in this setting and has created a trenchant, modulated and totally engaging 90-minute production. It is also very funny: “When everything’s right, it’s like lovemaking”…when things are bad, however, it is “like swallowing Drano.”
These actors are a combination of quantities, known and unknown, but their quality is uniformly high. We are introduced first to the original quartet: Elliot (Mark Hunter), first violin; Alan (Matthew Givens), second violin; Dorian (Phillips), viola; Carl (Scott Page), cello. Almost immediately, Grace (Gaston) appears and all of the group struggles are set in motion.
Elliot is the waspish, imperious leader of the group. Initially, we perceive him as fussy and intellectual, volatile and reactionary, especially when he is challenged on his musical decisions. Quickly, however, more desperate and darker aspects of his personality begin to show through. Hunter’s Elliot is so ego-driven and malevolent – even heartless – that he is difficult to watch, but you cannot force yourself to look away. His interactions with Phillips are heart wrenching; kudos to a brave actor who accepts being unlikable for the sake of creating the character.
Alan is lively and social, the wry wit in the group who says the quartet is “like a marriage with better fidelity.” Givens is amiable in his role as Grace’s guide to maneuvering the mine field that is the Lazara Quartet. However, he also clearly has his own motivations.
Carl, a confirmed family man, maintains his detachment from all of the drama until his own crisis threatens the entire enterprise. Page projects a quiet stoicism, a deliberate sense of balance, for most of the play. However, he has a scene near the end that is so strong and riveting that you suddenly realize all that has been hidden just below his placid surface.
Grace is a natural with the music, but naïve or, at least, she appears to be unaware of some of the subtler inner workings of the group dynamic. She is smart and plucky, but she also hedges her bets, as we find out in a short scene late in the play. Gaston is quite good at maintaining a façade of indifference, but having a core of steel. It is fascinating to watch the character grow into an equal member of this closed society.
Dorian, the exceptionally gifted but unpredictable violist, has become unwilling to accept his secondary role in the group. After all, he is the reason they have instruments made by their namesake, Pietro Lazara. Philips brings credibility and specificity to a role that could be a cliché – “going buggy” as Dorian calls it – or victim. In Phillips’ able hands, we simply see a man overwhelmed until he decides to stand for himself. The scene with Grace which features his reunion with his beloved viola is masterful.
“Opus” says a lot about the work and the importance of art and its place in our lives, as well as about the way that passionate commitment to art, or to anything for that matter, can impede out relations with others.
Information Source: River Region Arts
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