Saturday, April 16, 2011


When we got home last night, after seeing Opus at Portland Center Stage, I told Stephen I could tell that the play had been written by someone who knew music. Who knew what it was like to be part of a quartet. Then I said that, of course, I have no idea what it's like to be part of a quartet - but you can tell when art and story is infused with authenticity. For me, the writing of Opus worked in the way music works. There's the part about numbers, about order and interval and brain. And there's the part about emotion and tension and heart. I've always been fascinated by the way that music is about mathematics, how this thing (math) that I used to think of as the exact opposite of creativity is what gives music its... music. The play Opus works this way. In terms of people, Opus is about what 4 means. What 4 minus 1 means. What 4 plus 1 means. What 1 plus 1 means. And within those numbers, you find feeling and tension and beauty.

And, oh man, tension. The human story is so taut. The way the particular violin and viola are used - at times it was excruciating. In Dangerous Writing, Tom Spanbauer often talks about "loving the object." Fully putting that object on the page, using it as it can best be used. In Opus, the writer (Michael Hollinger), the director (Brendon Fox) and the actors poured some great and effective love on those two objects. Overall, Opus is a tense, human and smartly written play. Moments that could be melodramatic in another story are handled with delicacy or humor. There's the right balance of headiness and emotion.

Of course, music can be great, but it has to be played well. I thought Opus was very well staged. The set seemed the right amount of minimalism, and the fluid and geometric backdrop provided a tiny bit of magic. I thought the actors all did a great job. Particularly Matthew Boston, who plays Dorian, and Chris Coleman, who plays Elliott. I was naturally pretty curious how Coleman was going to be as an actor, since he's worked as Artistic Director of PCS for over ten years now. He was very, very good. Totally engaging and particular. The two of them in the scene introducing the violin and viola were just beautiful. All the actors made their characters distinct and real and worked well with the smart script and the timing of the "documentary" moments.

That Behind the Music aspect of the play was something I didn't need - turning the moments when the characters spoke directly to the audience into pieces of a documentary. I understand that it's a way to remind the audience of other famous musical feuds, like the Beatles, but what it reminded me about more was reality TV. It wasn't something that bugged me in the play - just something that made me aware that I would have been fine with the characters speaking to me, without needing a reason for it.

Maybe the writer felt like it would widen the appeal, help keep the classical music aspect of the play from scaring people who just want to go out and be entertained. Well, Opus is highly entertaining as well as being heady. You leave the theater feeling smart and moved and, yes, entertained. And you so wish you could play the violin.

It goes until May 8 on the main stage of Portland Center Stage.

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