Arts & Culture

First plays showcase new group’s talent

Contributing Writer
Monday, February 6, 2012

Flawless beauty takes tremendous work — at least, that is the message conveyed in “Opus” by Michael Hollinger and “Speed-the-Plow” by David Mamet, the first plays to be produced by the Repertory Project, an independent theater group headed by Emma Johnson ’14 and Skylar Fox ’15. Both plays, by disparate means, showcase the role of sacrifice in the pursuit of great art. Where “Opus” explores the personal losses suffered when friends and lovers come together in playing professional music, “Speed-the-Plow” demonstrates how either morals or reputation must be lost in order to succeed in Hollywood. Both plays were performed in the Production Workshop Upspace Feb. 2-4.

“Opus” follows the members of the Lazara Quartet as they search to replace their “wonderful,” “terrifying” and “visionary” viola player, Dorian (Brian Cross ’12), who was recently fired from the group. Though Dorian is a creative genius, he is also unstable, prone to outbursts and fanatic episodes. Dorian’s romance with another member of the quartet, Elliot (Patrick Madden ’14), is charged with mistrust and anxiety, and many of the play’s most affecting scenes take place between the two. One such dramatic scene involves Elliot, who, in search of his stolen violin, bursts on stage to find Dorian gripping a plunger in his hands. The scene seems eccentric until the reveal — Dorian has stolen the violin and flushed his medication down the toilet.

Cross, much like Dorian himself, is both extraordinary and terrifying in his role as the brilliant pariah of the Lazara Quartet. As Dorian and Elliot come to verbal blows, Cross visibly strains to convey Dorian’s urge to express himself. Dorian is impassioned and inhibited, reasonable and fanatic, and Cross walks these lines beautifully. The audience understands why the quartet ousted Dorian but, at the same time, why it so desperately needs him back.

Though Cross and Madden shine as dramatic leads, the supporting cast lends comedy to the play’s heavy material. Natalie McDonald ’15 plays Dorian’s replacement, Grace, whose shining moment is a drunken reminiscence about her father’s disappointment in her chosen career. Josh Wallace ’13 plays Alan, the straight man of the group, who is recently divorced and is secretly hardened by the group’s constant travelling. Skylar Fox ’15 is fantastic as Carl, who is good-natured, charming and seemingly carefree, but stricken with brain and lung cancer after five years in remission.

The set decoration is sparse, allowing the explosive interactions between characters to command the audience’s attention. For most of the play, the actors revolve around the four seats where they practice, and the instruments are the most-used props. The stage is lined with hanging sheet music from Beethoven’s Opus 131, the work that incites many of the play’s central conflicts — the piece was the last that the Lazara Quartet played with Dorian as well as their first for a performance at the White House with Grace.

“Opus” deals deftly with traditional themes about music, beauty and passion — the dangers of ambition, the price of demanding perfection and the sacrifices we make to pursue what, and who, we love.

“I wanted to make that sound,” Grace remembers, recounting the first time she heard the viola. That humble desire is what creates the quartet’s passion. Unfortunately, they lose sight of perspective on the path to glory and fame.

Alternatively, “Speed-the-Plow” is a satire about art, greed, ambition and the vacuous character of corporate life. The play follows Bobby Gould (Daniel Gonon ’12), a production manager for a Hollywood studio who has recently been promoted. With this rise comes the power to “make decisions,” which often have multi-million dollar implications in the film industry.

Gould is not an artist but a businessman who “takes his coffee like he makes his movies — nothing in them,” as one character describes him. Gonon plays the role of the savvy, fast-talking production head with unwavering intensity. He speaks so quickly that the audience is occasionally lost in the flurry of dialogue about money, power and sex between Gould and his long-time subordinate and friend, Charlie Fox (Gerrit Thurston ’13).

The play’s central conflict arises over the tension between success and morality in the movie business. Bobby is seduced by Karen (Sarah Gage ’15), who uses their relationship as leverage to get her “courtesy read” novel — an offbeat, apocalyptic book about radiation — made into a movie instead of one Fox proposes.

Much like Grace in “Opus,” Karen appears earnest, unassuming and ineffably “naive” upon first entrance, as the new temporary secretary for Bobby Gould. Gage’s nuanced performance gives many dimensions to Karen ­— as the play ends, the audience is left unsure of whether her naivety is genuine or calculated, a means of furthering her own ambitions in the cutthroat movie business.

“Speed-the-Plow” has only three onstage characters, but there is constant dynamism and evolution in their involvement with each other. Scenes such as Karen’s reverent report on the radiation novel and a final fight between Charlie Fox and Bobby Gould — which comes to physical violence — are made exceptionally powerful by the commitment and artistic decisions of actors Thurston, Gage and Gonon.

Where “Speed-the-Plow” reflects with some cynicism on the present-day intersection of success and art, “Opus” suggests that all else considered, the beauty of music must always reign supreme. Boasting captivating stories and stellar performances, both plays present a strong start and suggest a bright future for the Repertory Project.


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