Review: 'Opus' at the Rep Explores Conflict in Human Relationships and String Quartets

By Christopher Reilly
In Culture

Whenever highly-creative people are asked to collaborate there are bound to be differences—vociferous arguments even—driven sometimes by ego and sometimes by the quest for perfection. In fact, Googling “conflict among creatives in a group” returns 81 million search results. In the case of Michael Hollinger’s “Opus,” currently playing at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, the “creatives” are musicians—tops in their field—and the “group” is the Lazara Quartet, a string quartet who have achieved no small degree of success. The production vibrates with emotion and trembles with human conflict, and occasionally, sings with the joy of artistic achievement.

 James Joseph O'Neil as Elliot, Chris Hietikko as Carl and Greg Jackson as Alan. ©Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

James Joseph O’Neil as Elliot, Chris Hietikko as Carl and Greg Jackson as Alan.
©Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

The story begins with Quartet members Elliot (James Joseph O’Neil), Alan (Greg Jackson) and Carl (Chris Hietikko) as they audition Grace (Rachael Jenison) to replace ousted violist Dorian (Matthew Boston), who we will later learn was Elliot’s roommate and lover, not to mention an unpredictable but driving force known equally for his brilliance as his volatile eruptions. Replacing a member in such a group is difficult at best, but Grace is so good she is offered the job on the spot.

James Joseph O'Neil as Elliot and Rachael Jenison as Grace. ©Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

James Joseph O’Neil as Elliot and Rachael Jenison as Grace.
©Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

The characters are all drawn very clearly, from Elliot’s petulant personality (who must always get his way) to Carl’s gentle but internally strong character, and Alan’s observational, unobtrusiveness to Grace’s wide-eyed, youthful exuberance. But it is missing-in-action Dorian who dominates the group, even in absence. We will be told his story through flashbacks; his insecurities, his mental and emotional issues and his propensity for sudden outbursts, such as when—angry over a performance—he breaks Alan’s bow over his knee backstage. Later when the event is thrown back in Dorian’s face, he defends himself: “But it wasn’t his good bow,” he says, as though that is a viable excuse.

Matthew Boston as Dorian  ©Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Matthew Boston as Dorian
©Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

The show also explores why we allow some people to get away with being a jerk and not others, and the conclusion is spot-on. Dorian was allowed his tantrums because, “He makes us better,” Elliot is told, but “you are not good enough to be unpredictable.”

Of course, along with the flashbacks, the audience is treated to the story of the Quartet itself as we eavesdrop on rehearsals and private conversations. There wasn’t an unfilled moment on stage among these fine actors, who held the audiences in rapt attention throughout.

The cast of "Opus" ©Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

The cast of “Opus”
©Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

All of which makes the decision to not have the actors even attempt to look like they were actually playing truly baffling. Never mind that the production boasts that members of the St. Louis Symphony “coached” them on how to use a bow, they never move their fingers as though fingering notes. Who made this decision and why? Why was it even tolerated? This decision effectively tethered the production to the ground so it would never fly above good into greatness.

Technically the show was very good, a usual component of a Rep production. James Kronzer’s set, Holly Poe Durbin’s costumes, Patricia Collins’ lights and Rusty Wandall’s sound served the show well, and Brendon Fox has drawn finely nuanced performances from his actors, but he must ultimately take responsibility for the fingering fiasco.

“Opus” continues at the Rep through Feb. 2. For tickets and information, visit the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis website.

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