“Opus” at Winchester Little Theater by Mark Dewey

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FOUR STARS

Beautifully Orchestrated Opus at Winchester Little Theater

The opening scene of Opus says a lot about what’s to come. Four men sit on four black stools in a line along the back of the stage. They’re lit from above by turns as each of them responds to a question that we didn’t get to hear — it must have been asked before the curtain rose. The lead moves among them like an idea wandering from one mind to another – it’s not clear if any of them knows the others are speaking, or even present, but it is clear that they are being played, if you will, like instruments, each voice distinct in tone and content, no voice asked or allowed to carry the melody alone.

 Dorian (Pat Markland), Carl (Rob Elson, Allen (Homer Speaker), and Elliot (Chuck O'Keeffe) ponder the string quartet. Photo courtesy of Winchester Little Theater.
Dorian (Pat Markland), Carl (Rob Elson, Allen (Homer Speaker), and Elliot (Chuck O’Keeffe) ponder the string quartet. Photo courtesy of Winchester Little Theater.

The question they’re answering must be something like, “What’s a string quartet?” but they’re not sure whether to talk about the musical form or the people who play it. Over the next 90 minutes, we realize that the people are intertwined with the form. “Our work is ephemeral, as we are,” says the sitting first violinist at one point. “The notes pass by and then they’re gone.”

When three of the four men sitting on those stools move from that opening scene to the practice room at the front of the stage, we quickly realize that they have a problem: one of them is missing, and their big come-back engagement at the White House, before the president and a television audience of millions, is fast approaching, so they’re desperate to hire a replacement for the missing member. They settle on a young woman who has always dreamed of playing chamber music but who also wants the dental insurance offered by more conventional employers like The Pittsburgh Symphony.

In their first rehearsal with Grace, it becomes clear that the missing member, Dorian, is a brilliant violinist whom the other three players first demoted to the viola position — insisting that the move is not a demotion — and then fired altogether because reliability is a more valuable quality in a colleague than brilliance. We also learn that Dorian and Elliot, the current first violinist, were lovers, and that Elliot’s ego was probably involved in the personnel  shuffling, and that even though Dorian is missing, he isn’t really gone: the other three are still playing through him, or playing over him, or trying to play him out of their system. Especially Elliot.

One thing this play does very well is deglamorize the musical profession by showing that these coworkers have the same interpersonal connections and conflicts as any other group of colleagues does. They accommodate each other, rely on each other, endure each other, fall in love with each other, and betray each other.

OPUS POSTEROne thing it does even better than that is play these four voices as if they were in fact a violin, another violin, a viola, and a cello interweaving in a way that lets us hear each of them distinctly with one ear and all of them together with the other ear simultaneously. Their exchanges are perfectly timed, with hair-triggers that show tensions that develop among people who work together in moderate discomfort and utter dependency for years.

“He played as if he were conversing with Motzart,” Allen says of Dorian at one point, “with no intermediary, the music coming out of him directly as Motzart heard it in his own head.”

At its best, this play works that way too: the actors voicing playwright Michael Hollinger – who earned his degree in viola performance from The Oberlin Conservatory before turning his hand to the theater – with no intermediary, his language coming out of them directly, which means that director Sara Gomez does her intermediary work extremely well.

The actors under her direction are finely crafted instruments themselves. Arrianna Nichols Loose plays Grace, the new violist, with a nervous cringe that makes me believe she might actually show up to rehearsal two hours early and not know it. Rob Elson plays Carl, the cellist, like a cello surrounded by smaller faster instruments that make a higher sound. Pat Markland’s Dorian floats in and out of scenes with a disinterested air that we recognize as both a facade and the empty space between genius and ordinary men.

 Grace (Arrianna Nichols Loose) rehearses for the first time with Elliot, Allen, and Carl. Photo courtesy of Winchester Little Theater.
Grace (Arrianna Nichols Loose) rehearses for the first time with Elliot, Allen, and Carl. Photo courtesy of Winchester Little Theater.

Chuck O’Keeffe and Homer Speaker perform especially well as the violinists Elliot and Allen. Speaker has deep crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes, a sharp face that looks like it’s used to the wind, and a full head of woman-pretty hair that seems inconsistent with his face in the same way his profession seems inconsistent with the ordinary guy he seems to be. He dresses like me, and he walks like me, and he handles problems like I do, and he looks at Grace as I might have looked at her when I was young. But he makes his living playing second violin in the Lazara String Quartet. Speaker manages to put those apparently incompatible qualities right next to each other again and again.

As Elliot, O’Keeffe may have the play’s richest role. He loves the most, lies the most, manipulates the most, and works the hardest at convincing everyone else that his way is the right way. He may be a better player than Allen or Carl, but he isn’t as good as Dorian, so he fills the gap between great and almost great with pretension – in his posture, in the tone of his voice, in the way he looks at the ceiling when he talks to people, or rolls his eyes and shakes his head. He covers his insecurity with dramatic flourish, like his sophomoric refusal to play “Pachelbel’s Canon in D” at the White House because, he says, “It sounds like a tampon commercial.” Elliot is the diva, and O’Keeffe does a marvelous job of both fulfilling that stereotype and transcending it.

How do you keep it going, this play asks, year after year? ‘It’ being the complex orchestration of all the forces at play in your pursuit of what you love to do, the thing that makes you want to live your life.“You play your part as well as you can,” Allen says near the end, “until you run out of notes.”

These actors play their parts extremely well.

Running time: 90 short minutes, without an intermission.

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Opus plays through January 20, 2013 at  The Winchester Little Theater – 315 West Boscaven Street, in Winchester, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (540-662-3331), or purchase them online.