Fraught foursome Opus at the Adobe Rose Theatre, reviewed
OPUS, Adobe Rose Theatre, July 14
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.adoberosetheatre.org.
Left to right, Tom Schuch, Eli Goodman, Alexandra Renzo, Aaron Leventman; photo Lynn Roylance