The members of the fictional Lazara String Quartet all studied under the same inspirational mentor, who taught them that they “must be like four instruments played with one bow.” When they are at their best, they produce music greater than the sum of the quartet’s parts – “You can’t tell who’s who anymore.” But collaborative art can be like sausage: The results may be tasty, but you don’t really want to see how it’s made.
Opus, the erudite and highly entertaining drama by playwright and former violinist Michael Hollinger, now playing at the Orlando Shakespeare Theater, takes us – ready or not – right into the sausage factory, putting all the messy backstage arguments, both musical and personal, in a work that lovingly explores the art of making music and the eccentric humans who struggle with its creation.
As the play opens, the famed quartet is faced with the disappearance of Dorian, its brilliant but emotionally shaky viola player, recently fired from the group. Faced with an upcoming command performance at the White House, the ensemble must find a suitable replacement quickly. Luckily, the three remaining musicians, Elliot, Alan and Carl, secure the services of Grace, a wunderkind violist fresh out of the conservatory. Flattered to be considered and pressured into making a commitment, she signs on, unaware of the meat grinder into which she is jumping.
Amid flashbacks and skillfully conceived scenes among the group’s principals, we come to know the history of the quartet’s last volatile decade and the situations that have led to Dorian’s departure. Hollinger adds interesting plot devices and more than enough sweet string music, which is cleverly mimed by the acting company – they bow their instruments’ notes but don’t attempt to play their fingerboards, a theatrical convention readily embraced by the audience.
Mark Routhier’s direction is flawless and virtually invisible, and the work is further graced by the superb acting of three of Orlando’s most accomplished performers – David Lee, T. Robert Pigott and Tom Nowicki. That winning trio is joined by two gifted newcomers to the company, C.S. Lee and Meagan English.
David Lee is brilliant as the imperious Elliot, the quartet’s first violinist. His character is demanding, annoying and vindictive, yet, because of his honesty and no-nonsense persona, oddly likable. It’s Elliot’s iron hand and unyielding devotion to the musical text that drives the quartet’s perfectionism. He also tends to overdo it, especially when he’s pushing the group’s emotional crescendos too far.
Who can really blame Elliot for his bad temper, when Dorian, his colleague and lover, is an unstable genius and won’t stay on his meds? In addition, Dorian is really a first “fiddler” whose demotion to the viola, the other end of the line, is a seething hurt roiling below his tenuous hold on reality. When his shenanigans get him bounced from the foursome, the group loses its best ear. Dorian is the guy who “hears things” the others don’t. As Dorian, Pigott turns in another edgy and idiosyncratic portrayal as the troubled musician who may or may not have his final revenge by play’s end.
Nowicki, as Carl, grounds the group’s vibe, just as his cello’s low register grounds its sound. He is the quartet’s only “family” man, so his perspective on what’s important – besides the music – is broader and more mature than his colleagues’. Besides, a health scare a few years back has bestowed on him life’s most salient message: “There’s not much time.”
C.S. Lee is an established film, TV and theater performer; his character, Alan, is the quartet’s thoughtful, easygoing second violinist, blessed with too much libido. He’d be happy to just play the music (and the girls when he can), but he often has to serve as the diplomat as well, mediating his more volatile partners’ disputes.
Finally, there is Meagan English as Grace, the young virtuoso who wants to shine as the quartet’s new violist, but is wise enough to hedge her bets when she begins to witness the group’s increasingly unattractive spats. English more than holds her own against the four aforementioned scenery-chewers as they expertly riff on Hollinger’s dialogue as if it were a musical piece in itself.
Opus is an extremely satisfying and intelligent work exploring the human drama within a world that demands the best from its inhabitants, while sometimes squeezing the worst out of them. It is well-written, expertly staged and performed con brio (with vigor) – a most gratifying evening of theater.