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Douglas Rees, Greg Wood, David Whalen, Patrick McNulty, Erika Cuenca
Michael Hollinger's Opus, currently on the mainstage at Pittsburgh City Theatre, carries its musical theme on more than one resonant level. As a play about the inner workings of divergent personalities in a high profile string quartet, it is obviously about music. Structured in "movements" and staged so that dialogue is often presented in harmony and counterpoint, it feels like a musical composition; and an audible level is provided through recorded string music during scenes and as transitions. On all levels, Opus is a very satisfying 90-minute play.

The Lazara String Quartet, consisting of violinists Dorian, Elliot and Alan, and cellist Carl, has seen a good deal of success, but is in rehearsals for their most prestigious appearance yet, at the White House. Unfortunately, the complex and unpredictable Dorian has disappeared, and a replacement must be found. Enter Grace, an extremely talented young musician just starting her career. Grace's effects on the remaining three musicians, and the question of whether or not she can survive the temperaments and eccentricities of the group, play out in interesting and unexpected ways

The spot-on casting of this production allows us to get quick takes on the personalities of the characters. Patrick McNulty is excellent as first violinist Elliot, the impetuous and high strung group leader who sets everyone on edge. The amiable Alan (Greg Wood) and apprehensive Grace (Erika Cuenca) connect and form the real core of the group. Douglas Rees brings a grounding to Carl, the lone cellist who provides background support, both musically and on a human level. And David Whalen shows Dorian's spark and the conflict between genius and emotional balance. None of the characters' nature is plumbed in depth, but the sketches of their personalities allow us to grasp their history and anticipate what happens next.

Hollinger (Incorruptible and Red Herring at City Theatre) has a BA in Music in viola performance, as well as an MA in theatre. It is to the audience's benefit that he brings those disciplines together here. Accessible to the less musically inclined, but offering clever wordplay of the classical musical world, Hollinger allows both humor and pathos to come through without artificiality or mawkishness. Staged beautifully by Terrence J. Nolen (Artistic Director of Philadelphia's Arden Theatre), the pieces of the play are presented in quick scenes showing the present as well as the past, and get right to the passion that is present in all characters but manifested in different ways.

The all important musical pieces (recorded by The Addison Quartet), though brief, are lovely and cued so precisely that we get a perfect impression of the actors providing music, even though they are not fingering their instruments. It's a very effective way of depicting musicians on stage. James Kronzer's set is simple yet provides an appropriate setting for all scenes, and Andrew David Ostrowski's lighting is very nicely done and adds greatly to the overall atmosphere.

Opus is presented by City Theatre in association with the Arden Theatre through April 9 on the City's mainstage. For performance and ticket information, call 412-431-CITY or visit www.citytheatrecompany.org.

Photo: Mark Garvin

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-- Ann Miner

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