TRTC ‘LIKE HOME’ FOR ‘OPUS’ DIRECTOR

matthew-arbour-102310Director Matthew Arbour oversees an ensemble cast that includes a COSBY SHOW veteran as the play OPUS begins its run this week at Two River Theater. (Click to enlarge)

By TOM CHESEK

With its first mainstage production (Intimate Apparel) of the 2010-2011 season, Two River Theater Company managed to hit one out of the park — a feat that set the bar pretty high for everything to follow, but is ultimately just another reason to swing for the fences with its latest, which begins previews tonight.

In Opus, by classical musician-turned-dramatist Michael Hollinger, “personalities clash, tensions rise, and four musicians grapple with how far they will go to achieve excellence,” as the members of a string quartet are forced to scramble to replace a temperamental star player who’s fired just days before the biggest concert of their careers.

Described by its director as “a play about a quartet with five actors,” it’s an ensemble piece that numbers among its players a familiar face from one of the most popular TV shows of the past 25 years — none other than Geoffrey Owens, who played the Huxtables’ son-in-law Elvin on The Cosby Show for seven of the hit sitcom’s eight seasons. The stage/screen actor (son, by the by, of former Congressman Major Owens) is joined onstage by Craig Baldwin, Anjanette Hall, Saxon Palmer, and Kevin Kelly (seen previously in TRTC’s All My Sons).

About that director. He’s named Matthew Arbour, and he’s a local guy “making good” by his own estimation — having grown up in Little Silver, graduated from Christian Brothers Academy in Lincroft, and gone on to become a sought-after theater professional whose projects have won acclaim from Manhattan to Missouri. A beyond-busy Arbour planted it for a few minutes during “tech week,” to give redbankgreen the dope on Opus and otherwise.

redbankgreen: Thanks for finding the time during rehearsal, Matthew. You’re probably thinking we’re going to hit you with the local-dude angle right away, and you’d be right.

MATTHEW ARBOUR: Well, I’m excited to be working back here. I live in New York these days, but I mostly grew up in Little Silver. My family still lives there. I went through public school there, and I graduated from CBA in, let’s see, 1987… coming up on 24 years.

So Red Bank, you know, was the cool place to go. You’d have to stop by Jack’s, get a slice from Mr. Pizza Slice. But Red Bank at the time was not really an art center. Downtown was pretty stricken back then. There was no professional theater going on anywhere in Monmouth County in those days.

Did you manage to get a taste for the actor’s life back in a school play, or a community show around here?

What really started it for me was a trip that my family made to the McCarter Theatre, to see A Christmas Carol on stage. I worked on the set crew in some high school productions, and I was a chorus member in Evita — they did Evita at CBA — but I didn’t really get seriously involved in theater until I went to Bowdoin College in Maine.

I was on the pre-med track there, but my two roommates were a lighting designer and an actor. I saw that the people in the theater program had this already amazing social life that I was somehow missing out on.

Around that time, I was failing Organic Chemistry II and Physics — two courses that were just mathematically outside my zone. The dean met with me and told me, you know you’ve got astonishing grades in literature, photography — any kind of artistic pursuit. He asked me, is it possible you’re really an artist?

Could you mime for us the look on your parents’ faces when you told them you were switching from pre-med to a theater major?

I actually never switched! I stuck it out; passed the classes, and I wound up doing medical research for Harvard Medical School, at a hospital in Boston. Studying the genetics of aging in mice. Very beautiful work — a little lonely, but beautiful.

I had to ask myself, in a year, am I going to still be doing this, or working on plays? And in a year — actually more than a year; I missed my deadline — I started interning as a director. The Portland Stage Company in Maine called me in to be an intern for the season, and I wound up spending six seasons as a dramaturg and literary manager. It was there that I learned what original theater can do in its community.

And since that time you’ve been traveling around the country, directing shows all over the map, including if I’m not mistaken some things at Two River and at New Jersey Repertory Company.

It’s an exciting way to see the country. I enjoy going to a new city for four to six weeks, making something for the people who live there. The challenge is to get out into the town, and find out about the people who are coming to the show.

The thing I directed at Two River was a piece by Samuel Beckett called Quad. It was done as one of the one-acts in their Beckett Festival, when Jonathan Fox was artistic director. If you’re familiar with it, there’s no dialogue, no script; just a complex diagram indicating movement. But Jonathan loved to present challenging material, and somehow it works. At New Jersey Rep, I directed a play called October 1962.

I thoroughly enjoyed the short plays they did in the Beckett Fest — that was Jonathan’s crowning achievement before he left Two River. And OCTOBER 1962 was absolutely one of the very best plays I’ve ever seen around here.

It was a great experience, working there — and it was also great to be able to work so closely with the playwright, as opposed to when you’re doing something by Shakespeare or Wilde. Michael Hollinger has also been very easygoing; there’s nothing like being able to phone or email the writer. He told me, ‘I really love not being a dead playwright.’

So, having worked at Two River before, were you attached to this project from the start?

I wasn’t with it at the beginning, but I’d been talking regularly with Aaron Posner all during his tenure there at Two River, about my directing a full length show in Red Bank, and Opus just happened to be the best fit. The really good part of directing is when you get to work for a company more than once. I know what this place feels like; it’s a beautiful facility, designed to make everyone in the building work as effectively as possible with each other. It feels like home.

The play itself is also designed for people to work together, it seems, just like a chamber quartet.

It’s about how a tight-knit group works together to create something that’s theirs — there’s next to no individual work in this play. The burden of carrying the story passes from person to person, really in the way that music is made.

Having been a professional musician, Michael of course knows that world, but the play is partly written out of his love for actors. The way that chamber musicians work together is how actors work — the necessary give and take.

You do have one actor in the cast who’s going to be familiar to a lot of people. Have you worked with Geoffrey, or with any of these actors before?

I worked with Kevin Kelly in St. Louis, where we did an outdoor production of Richard III, so I thought of him when we were casting Opus. And as for Geoffrey, for better or worse, the Cosby Show hasn’t come up once. He’s an intelligent, detail-conscious actor, and we’re lucky to have him here for his first project back on the east coast in some time. We’ll see how people react to his presence, but really the star of this thing is the whole notion of working together — the struggle, the ambition, the way that differences can be worked out. I find it inspiring.

Inspiring, sure, but is that something you see much in evidence outside the walls of the theater? Particularly a week before Election Day?

There’s a lot of contention these days over what we can and should be — to me, it’s not productive. I don’t think it’s where we came from.

Some of the most beautiful things in life require self-sacrifice. We have it in us to do that — even to learn to be good at it.

Opus begins four nights of previews Tuesday, October 26; opens Saturday, October 30, and runs through Sunday, November 14. Tickets are $35 – $61 (with a new discounted price of $24 for anyone 30 years and younger) and are available by calling the TRTC Box Office at 732.345.1400, or visiting the TRTC website for schedule details and availability — as well as info on dinner/show packages and other special-event performances.

More on Opus — and on Namaste Man, the first in a new season of Flashes of Brilliance one-person shows at Two River Theater  — coming up here in the pixelated pages of redbankgreen.