Fraught four­some Opus at the Adobe Rose The­atre, re­viewed

OPUS, Adobe Rose The­atre, July 14

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS - — James M. Keller

To any­one peer­ing in from the out­side, a pro­fes­sional cham­ber-mu­sic ensem­ble is bound to look ar­cane. A string quar­tet would be the ex­em­plar: Four mu­si­cians, per­haps of sim­i­lar tem­per­a­ment, per­haps not, who spend day af­ter day, month af­ter month, ex­per­i­ment­ing with how to in­ter­pret de­tails of works that com­posers may have com­pleted cen­turies ago — and who even­tu­ally reach a point where they de­cide they’ve been mis­fir­ing with a piece and start push­ing the boul­der up the hill all over again. For mu­si­cians drawn to such a path, it is par­adise — un­less things go se­ri­ously off track.

That is what has hap­pened when we en­counter the Lazara Quar­tet, the ensem­ble that in­hab­its Michael Hollinger’s play Opus, which opened on July 14 (when we at­tended) and will run through July 31 at the Adobe Rose The­atre. Its four gen­tle­man mu­si­cians, found­ing mem­bers all, sit near the sum­mit of their dis­ci­pline, with a Grammy award to prove it, but their vi­o­list has pushed peo­ple’s but­tons too many times, and they have felt com­pelled to cut him loose. That he and the first vi­o­lin­ist were break­ing up as lovers didn’t help make things smoother, and nei­ther did the fact that the dis­missed vi­o­list wanted des­per­ately to be play­ing vi­o­lin in­stead. The group has a gig at the White House in five days, slated to be tele­vised to 15 mil­lion view­ers. They need a new vi­o­list. They hire her, a cham­ber-mu­sic novice, af­ter a sin­gle ses­sion in which she sight-reads Bartók’s Sec­ond Quar­tet. Oh, re­ally? Those five days are chock-a-block with in­ci­dents that make things in­creas­ingly rocky, and the play be­comes even more packed as it flashes back to events that oc­curred when the for­mer vi­o­list was still on the team. Did I men­tion that, even though the four­some is burn­ing the mid­night oil in New York to per­fect its in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Beethoven’s Op. 131 for the big broad­cast, the new vi­o­list has time to slip away for an au­di­tion in Pitts­burgh? Did I men­tion that the cel­list just got a fail­ing grade on his cancer checkup?

What we have here is a soap opera that is il­log­i­cal in many of its plot de­tails. But it is a soap opera about clas­si­cal mu­si­cians, and peo­ple who are fas­ci­nated by that world may be will­ing to over­look some of the plot’s short­com­ings. Hollinger is per­haps too lib­eral in sprin­kling the di­a­logue with clichés of word or thought: “It was like he was … con­vers­ing with Mozart, like the com­poser was mak­ing it up on the spot and it was just com­ing out, no in­ter­me­di­ary, di­rect from the source . ... ” The play­wright, who was clas­si­cally trained as a vi­o­list him­self, clearly de­cided to sub­sti­tute plat­i­tude for verisimil­i­tude now and again in order to ratchet up the emo­tional ap­peal of the drama. On the other hand, he does pro­vide se­ri­ous glimpses into the process of re­hearsal, re­veal­ing how deeply cham­ber play­ers care about minu­tiae in a piece like Op. 131. Play­wrights al­ways have to strike some com­pro­mise be­tween fan­tasy and re­al­ity; and in any case, the­ater al­ways de­mands some sus­pen­sion of dis­be­lief. Au­di­ence mem­bers with a close aware­ness of the mu­sic world may feel that the play sur­passes cred­i­bil­ity, but more gen­eral view­ers may more eas­ily over­look its im­plau­si­bil­ity and find that it bal­ances things in a grat­i­fy­ing way.

In the Adobe Rose pro­duc­tion, the five ac­tors of­fer a win­ning per­for­mance that makes it easy to for­give the play for its short­com­ings. Di­rec­tor Staci Rob­bins has gone for a sim­ple, pared-down look in which the au­di­ence, their chairs sit­u­ated on the­ater-inthe-square ris­ers sur­round­ing the ac­tion, is in­vited to fo­cus undis­tract­edly on the ac­tors and such of their ac­cou­trements as in­stru­ments, cases, and mu­sic stands. The play-script states that while the ac­tors should be as pre­cise as pos­si­ble in im­i­tat­ing the bow­ing of recorded mu­sic that is played, they “should not at­tempt to move their left hands along with the recorded pas­sages” be­cause “this in­vari­ably looks fake and will dis­tract from the play.” The ac­tors fol­low this direc­tive — they even had a bow­ing coach — and the re­sult is largely per­sua­sive.

The strong­est per­for­mances in this well-matched cast cor­re­spond to the char­ac­ters who are most fully de­vel­oped in the play. Eli Good­man is brusque and of­ten abra­sive as first vi­o­lin­ist El­liot, ex­as­per­ated and deeply at odds with his un­likely col­league and ro­man­tic part­ner, de­part­ing vi­o­list Do­rian, played by John Reiser with a dis­qui­et­ing com­bi­na­tion of pas­sive-ag­gres­sion, men­tal un­pre­dictabil­ity, and ap­par­ent artis­tic ge­nius. Alexan­dra Renzo por­trays the new vi­o­list, Grace, as an in­ter­est­ing in­ter­sec­tion of prac­ti­cal­ity and flight­i­ness, vig­i­lantly ob­serv­ing the go­ings-on as she tries to fig­ure out how she is go­ing to fit into an ap­par­ently dys­func­tional mu­si­cal fam­ily. The other two play­ers are not quite so cen­tral to the story, but Tom Schuch por­trays sec­ond vi­o­lin­ist Alan as a prac­ti­cal mu­si­cian in­ter­ested in keep­ing the peace, and Aaron Levent­man, as cel­list Carl, seems in­tent on pro­vid­ing a de­pend­able foun­da­tion for the group, and for him­self, even as his per­sonal world falls apart. This ensem­ble of five helps view­ers over­look the doubt­ful as­pects of the plot.

Hollinger, how­ever, also tosses some bon­bons to the in-crowd. The 13th of the play’s 16 scenes takes place at the vi­ola au­di­tion for the Pitts­burgh Sym­phony, and the mu­sic ev­ery­one is warm­ing up with in the back­ground is the open­ing of Richard Strauss’s Don Juan — a pas­sage that has prob­a­bly been in­cluded in ev­ery orches­tra’s vi­ola au­di­tions since the piece was writ­ten. At an­other point, the quar­tet’s found­ing mem­bers rem­i­nisce about their first coach, whose fa­vorite say­ing was “You must be like four in­stru­ments be­ing played with one bow.” In fact, a string quar­tet is made up of four in­stru­ments that are ef­fec­tively the same ex­cept for their size and there­fore their over­all pitch. They even tune their strings es­sen­tially the same — each string a fifth higher than the next low­est — ex­cept that the smaller in­stru­ments, the vi­o­lins, tune their low­est strings to G (yield­ing a bot­tom-to-top tun­ing of G-D-A-E), while the vi­ola and cello tune their low­est string to C (yield­ing C-G-D-A). You could le­git­i­mately view a quar­tet as a sin­gle four-part in­stru­ment, as the coach did. Con­sid­ered this way, a quar­tet is an in­stru­ment that tunes its strings from bot­tom to top on the notes C-G-D-A-E: Carl, Grace, Do­rian, Alan, El­liot. Thanks for that, Michael Hollinger.

“Opus” con­tin­ues Thurs­days through Satur­days at 7:30 p.m. and Sun­days at 3 p.m. through July 31, at the Adobe Rose The­atre (1213-B Park­way Drive). For tick­ets ($15-$20), call 505-629-8688 or go to www.adoberosethe­

Left to right, Tom Schuch, Eli Good­man, Alexan­dra Renzo, Aaron Levent­man; photo Lynn Roy­lance

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