Each production presentation should be judged on its own merits, but then we talk about one actor's Hamlet being superior to another's or so-and-so's reading of "A Streetcar Named Desire" being inferior to someone else's interpretation. Does a play have to be performed often or considered a "classic" to be fair game for comparison? I don't know, but I'm going to take a chance here and talk about both WEPG's and the Rep's versions, mainly because, in this case, I don't know how NOT to.
During last night's polished production at the big theatre, I kept thinking about how it was done at the smaller one, so there was that. Almost the entire cast and the director of the other production were in the audience, and there was that too. But the strongest impetus of all is that while both versions were good, I think the "Opus" we saw at WEPG was the better of the two. Not in all ways certainly, but in touching the heart and engaging the senses, it was. I believe the smaller, less slick venue of the Union Avenue Christian Church basement allowed us to focus on the story and the interrelation among the characters and not be distracted by lots of shuffling about to create the sets as was done at the Rep (to its credit, the actors did the lifting and moving) or to notice how shiny everything looked. Brendon Fox's direction is precise, almost militaristic at times; at others, when scenes are more relaxed, he draws personality traits to the fore by speech quirks and body language, and I liked that sense of detail.
Playwright Michael Hollinger has experience playing in a string quartet, and he said that when he was finally able to write about ensemble art and politics, the story rang true. And it does. I can't imagine the difficulty of four artistic temperaments in a group where there is no leader and all decisions are made by majority vote. Each member can and does critique the others. However, as the program essay from a member of the local group Arianna tells us, there are no happier musicians in the world than those fortunate enough to play in such an ensemble. I think some of Hollinger's characters might disagree with that, but then they would have to because there wouldn't be much dramatic interest in watching four people pretend to merrily play two violins, a viola and a cello.
The "Lazara Quartet" is composed of violist Dorian (Matthew Boston) who is replaced by the gifted Grace (Rachael Jenison) whose natural gift is apparently so amazing she is offered the job at her audition. Though she turns them down, she quickly comes back to say she'll take it, leaving Elliot (James Joseph O'Neil) in a humorously awkward position on the phone with a violist of lesser ability whom he is about to hire. Elliot is also a divo, much like Dorian, with whom he shared many things. Alan (Greg Jackson) is an ordinary guy, divorced and interested in the new girl. The group is completed by cellist Carl (Chris Hietikko) whose robust exterior disguises a secret.
Of course, they all have secrets because that's what gives this backstage drama its touch of melodrama and leads what has seemed to be a carefully crafted play to an unexpected place in the last few minutes. "Opus" contains plenty of humor (although not necessarily where the audience thought it was on opening night) and overall, is a well-structured, beautifully written play where the relationships and situations are believable and careful little touches make watching a pleasure. For example, Beethoven, Bartok and even the Beach Boys weave in and out of the stories in point counterpoint, while the impossible dream of artistic perfection is pursued. The characters care deeply for each other, and aside from one rather silly looking scene between Dorian and Elliot, their feelings are subtly and honestly portrayed.
So, why was WEPG's show better? It wasn't superior technically, certainly. While the Rep's set (James Kronzer) is simple, the costumes (Holly Poe Durbin), lights (Patricia Collins) and sound (Rusty Wandall) are top notch. Champe Leary's cues enable the difficult task of pretending to be musicians to happen seamlessly. What I miss is the soul I felt in director Jerry McAdams' (a guy who knows his classical music) more modestly scaled production. At the Rep, there was so much ACTING going on, and I realize that artists can be very dramatic. I would have liked to have seen the director tone down Boston and O'Neil. Not a lot, but just enough to make them less stereotypical.
If you didn't see WEPG's well-attended version, I envy you experiencing "Opus" for the first time, and I want to urge you to see this one. Here is a lovely play, well performed by a talented cast and it deserves an audience, though I also think it might have played better in the more intimate studio space downstairs. In the end, perhaps it was just too soon for me to see another production, but I do believe that this time, David slew Goliath armed with just the rosin on his bow.