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Saturday, 06 April 2013 15:53

Magnum 'Opus'

Written by Andrea Braun
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Magnum 'Opus'
westendplayers.org / John Lamb

For the last few years, smaller theatre companies seem to be in flux, coming and going, starting and stopping, or just in limbo for a while. But that’s not the case with West End Players Guild.

It’s been around, for decades as a community theatre and recently as a professional entity, for 102 years. It has carefully built a fan base, and as many groups cut back on shows during these lean times for the arts, WEPG offers more shows, not fewer, than it has in the past. I think a play like Michael Hollinger’s "Opus" is one of the reasons why the company flourishes.

I wish I were a more informed consumer of classical music (I think it was the seven years of forced piano lessons, so I blame Mom) but you don’t have to be an expert or even a casual fan to thoroughly enjoy this show. I think it’s fair to call "Opus" a “well-made play,” but not in the derisive sense of the term. It is genuinely carefully and tightly constructed, most of the incidents that lead to what happens in these brisk 90 minutes have occurred before the audience meets the players, and there is a twist propelled by an accidental meeting of two characters in a place we would expect to find neither. There’s something satisfying about its order, which, in the last five minutes, it proceeds to dismantle in a startling way.

This is the story of a string quartet, composed of perfectionist Elliot (John Wolbers) on first violin (or “first fiddle” in their jargon); macho Alan (John Hey), second violin; family man Carl (Dennis L. Folwarczny II), cello; and unpredictable Dorian (Stephen Peirick), viola. They are the “Lazara Quartet” named after a famous 18th century violinmaker, but the nod toward the Biblical Lazarus is also acknowledged. There is some professional jealousy between Elliot and Dorian, each of whom thinks he is best suited for the first chair. There are also various kinds of personal relationships among the four, both positive and negative. We’re told that the group is a democracy, that if three members agree on something, then it is decided. Early in the play, we find that the most recent decision has been to fire Dorian because his mental problems are affecting their music and even their lives. A gifted but inexperienced young woman, Grace (Caitlin Mickey) is their choice to replace him.

One way that "Opus" does deviate from the “well-made” conceit is that events don’t necessarily happen in order, so we see both quartet formations (with Dorian and with Caitlin) in rehearsal and performance. And while the three men didn’t think they could work with Dorian anymore, they do worry about him because his mental state is fragile and his ouster was clearly traumatic for him. Elliot pretends he isn’t concerned, but it’s clear that he cares most of all. Ironically, when it looks like Alan and Grace might be developing a relationship outside of the group, Elliot has a hissy fit. But can they play? Oh, yes. We see them preparing for a nationally televised concert at the White House coming up only days after Grace is hired. They decide to indulge themselves in a little rebellion against the assigned program, and they have great fun with it. But there is also deep meaning in the piece they do choose to play.

Director Jerry McAdams knows the classical music world well, and his grasp of the milieu is an asset to the production in that he can extract just what he needs from his actors. And those actors are nearly perfect in their roles. Peirick is a little uneven with Dorian’s fine madness, but he and Wolbers spar believably, and Wolbers Elliot is right on the mark. Hey provides the comic relief, but he’s also identifiable for those of us who breathe less rarefied air than these folks do, and Mickey is charmingly insecure and even klutzy, until she has a viola under her chin. Folwarczny’s performance is perhaps the most impressive of the five because his private journey (and they all have one) is the most serious, even though he constantly minimizes his condition. The company, singly and collectively, deserve a “bravo!”

Set and props are minimal. The actors mime using their bows without even attempting to make it look absolutely real. Their four chairs and music stands are shuffled around as needed for rehearsal and performance, and of course, each has his/her instrument, a couple of which are, you will learn, are as fraught with meaning as anything in the story. Clothes (Renee Sevier-Monsey) are appropriate for each one’s personality (except Elliot’s wrinkled shirt seemed out of character for such a fussy man) and they surely do clean up well in white tie and Grace’s beautiful red dress for the White House visit. Lighting (Tony Anselmo) and sound (Jerry McAdams) are fine, and there’s even a comic bit about lights that don’t suit Elliot. Elizabeth Henning assisted McAdams and acts as stage manager, as well.

I haven’t mentioned that "Opus" is also a comedy, and that aspect deserves a paragraph all its own. At first, and in places throughout, this is a very funny script, and all the actors demonstrate the comic timing that brings out the humor in each situation. They don’t miss any of the beats, and that is what music AND acting (especially comic) are all about: Hit your mark, be in tune and ready to play, don’t upstage anyone else purposely, listen when you aren’t center stage, and give it everything you have. That’s what I saw last night among a gratifyingly full house. This is as good a play as I’ve seen in this theatre and from this director. Most performances are preceded by a half-hour ensemble concert, so you can get an idea of what the real thing looks like too. On opening night, the Cahokia String Quartet played for us. Overall, "Opus" provides a thoroughly delightful evening. For more information: westendplayers.org.

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