By Michael Hollinger
Produced by Washington Stage Guild
Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
Early on in Michael Hollinger’s Opus, string quartet music is compared to love making and "a discourse among four reasonable people." Beautifully acted and staged at the Washington Stage Guild, director Steven Carpenter establishes the right tone for the interlock of a witty duel from brilliant talk that resonates like shared notes and overlapping phrases of music.
Off-stage, you would expect the select four "to complete sentences for each other," if they must perform together "like four instruments with one bow." Not so. Ultimately, the playwright’s seamless dialogue builds to a moment of delicious discord that transcends into titillating theater. On opening night, the audience seemed to take a breath with each rest in the well-timed interplay until the last tense moment.
Inside the intimate world of this fictional Lazara String Quartet, three of the virtuoso players have ganged up and fired the violist for being unreliable. But the viola is essential as the earthy-voiced fiddle between the cello and violins; in that it feeds in rich, dark chocolate tones. Without it, something is definitely missing—something like soul? So, the three, surviving males replace their violist with a gifted, generation-younger, fledgling, Grace, well-played with precision-timing and grace by Kathleen Coons. Reorganized, they choose Beethoven’s difficult Opus 131, revered for its "intellectual complexity," to be performed at their upcoming, career-capping White House gig. The high-stress rehearsals for this televised-to-millions, command performance drive the story. A flashback reveals to the newcomer the quartet’s turning point in a London recording studio when the group’s serious internal strife surfaces and the relationship between two lovers suffered long-term damage. The internal strife is as complex as the music they play.
Actor Kryztov Lindquist, as Elliot, the perfectionist first violinist, makes his character subtly controlling . Lindquist’s Elliot is not overtly evil, just eccentric and competitive to the point of being primly indignant over his territorial imperatives. But Lindquist wisely plays him even-handedly with enough balance to deceive us with the notion that he’s the leader of the pack. The actor reveals a character who carries a deep passion for the instruments that were hand-crafted in 1710 from one tree by fiddle maker Lazara, the group’s namesake. Yet doesn’t feel the music, critical for the story’s climax.
R. Scott Williams plays the rebel violist Dorian with an open-hearted bravura and full vibrato. The actor is solidly convincing as the temperamental visionary, the unpredictable neurotic with mind and soul. Dorian is the passionate musician who puts the music first as a conduit for what the composer intends. For him, perfection is never realized, "never perfect, just closer." Dorian is not only a well-spring for friction, but also for healing.
The other two characters surprise us with contradictions as well. Actor Carl Randolph plays Alan, the amiable second violinist, whose closing soliloquy brings the motifs into focus at the end. Their music is so much more than the notes they play that you feel the characters are talking about something allegorical: "You play your part the best you can until you run out of notes," says Alan.
A compelling undercurrent resides in the fact that one of the musicians is fighting cancer. Ritchie Porter plays Carl, the sensitive family man, who’s as devoted to playing the cello, the low-voiced bass line instrument, as he is to holding the group together. Carl is the quiet one who goes along with the others and pretty much keeps his feelings and opinions to himself until the pressure blows his cool. But another revelation introduces yet another ominous note that threatens the quartet’s stability along with the petty, out-in-the-open quarrels. When the passion for performance fails to hold the Lazara String Quartet together, will the center fall apart?
The actors are not musicians yet they hold their musical instruments and efficiently mime bowing and playing without finger movement. Recorded quartet music played by The Vertigo String Quartet, is synchronized so flawlessly, with never a missed cue by Sound Operator Nancy Viemeister, that the illusion is well established that professional musicians are performing before us.
Set designer Marcus Darnley introduces us to the art reflects life theme with a musical staff design that integrates with the action. Five white pillars, plastered with collages of sheet music, stand like a musical staff against a black curtain backdrop. Four five-lined bars, like sheet music, are painted on the floor. The design is eye-stopping and effective enough to stir conversation among audience members before the play begins. Resident lighting designer Marianne Meadows does a nice job with lighting on an un-curtained, three-quarter stage.
It’s Hollinger’s brilliant dialogue that makes Opus resonate beyond the music world. On opening night as the play ended, a borrowed quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet felt so right, a thrill went through the audience in the last moment.
(Running time: 90-minutes, no intermission)The area premiere of Opus, directed by Steven Carpenter, continues through May 20th, at The Washington Stage Guild, 1901 14th St., NW (14th and T, NW), located two blocks from the U Street/Cardozo Metro Station (13th St. exit) on the Green Line. Performances and Prices: Thurs. at 7:30 p.m., $35; Fri. and Sat. at 8 p.m., $40; Sat. and Sun. Matinees at 2:30 p.m. $35. Discounts available for seniors, students, AEA, and Actors’ Center members. For information and reservations, call 240-582-0050 or go to www.stageguild.org