Onstage: Disharmony

A string quartet struggles to make beautiful music in ETC's 'Opus'

Mar 21, 2007 at 2:06 pm
Sandy Underwood

Michael G. Bath and Elizabeth A. Davis star in ETC's Opus.

You would imagine, I suspect, that a string quartet must be a set of people who finish each other's sentences, who might "be like four instruments played with one bow." That's the illusion, at least, demanded by a man who taught several members of the fictional Lazara Quartet whose story is told in Michael Hollinger's new play, Opus, presently in its Cincinnati premiere at Ensemble Theatre. But disharmony is the order of the day in this fractious set of men who have made music together for many years.

In fact, they spend as much time bickering as they do playing. Finally, one of the quartet's founders, a perfection-junkie violist Dorian (Warren Kelley), is fired by the other three, who have concluded that his presence is a distraction. He disappears, much to their dismay — and to speculation in the Classical music world as to what's become of him. Icy and condescending first violinist Elliott (Michael G. Bath) seems eager to move on, even though he and Dorian founded the group. Rumpled Alan (David Arden Engel), the second violin, is more obliging and caring, anxious about what's happened to Dorian. Carl (Kevin Crowley), a big bear of a cellist, seems easygoing. We learn he's a family man and eventually discover he has other issues that distract him from his frustrations with the infighting.

But with a significant (and nationally televised) gig looming just six days away at the White House, the Lazara must fill the viola vacancy they've caused. Grace (Elizabeth A. Davis), a young player with skill to burn, is the perfect choice. But she is professionally ambitious, also taking an audition with the Pittsburgh Symphony. As she begins to work with Elliott, Alan and Carl, she is none too comfortable about working into the Lazara's previously all-male dynamic.

Hollinger has created a powerful dynamic in his story, which takes several unexpected twists and turns during the play's 90-minute, intermissionless performance. While most of the tale happens in the present, we are also offered flashbacks revealing the players' complex interrelationships. At several instances, we get inside the heads of the musicians and hear them speak their thoughts directly to the audience. (Some of these might be vignettes from a documentary about the group that is referenced on several occasions.)

Director Drew Fracher and his strong cast keep the action swift and taut, while occasionally allowing enough time for the audience to understand each character at a more personal level. Hollinger's dialogue is especially natural, artistic and appropriate — including a lot of musical shoptalk — but it is also very human. Alan, Grace and Carl, for instance, revel in a next-day conversation about an exciting baseball game during the playoffs. These are people who would be easy to get to know and like.

Nevertheless, much of Opus is about the ability of musicians to perform as an ensemble, and the actors convincingly convey a high degree of proficiency that's driven by passion. Again credit Hollinger (who was trained as a violist), and the show's original co-producers (theaters in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh) for providing a CD with pre-recorded performances of the music, especially rehearsals of a complex quartet, "Op. 131," by Beethoven.

The actors convincingly bow their instruments, starting and stopping in ways that cause you to lose sight of the fact they're not really playing or fingering. The illusion is enhanced by Brian c. Mehring's effective lighting and scenic designs, which blur the stage picture with shadows and projected images of pages of music and the hands of a string player fingering the neck of a violin. The resulting effect is one of utmost reality.

Opus is a finalist for the Steinberg New Play Prize, which will be presented later this month by the American Theatre Critics Association. It's a strong play that will see many more productions, I'm sure, but I can't imagine one much more satisfying that this one. Grade: A

OPUS, presented by Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati, continues through April 1.