'Opus' opens door on wild world of string quartets

Categories: Theater
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Classical music may seem genteel from the outside, but as Michael Hollinger's Opus shows, it can be full of enough bitter infighting, sexual tension, and destructive force to make the Rolling Stones blush. Centering on a fictional, world-famous string quartet, the 90-minute piece, now playing at the Park Square Theatre, shows the group trying to survive in an absolute pressure-cooker of a situation.

The Lazara Quartet has just fired its violist on the eve of a major gig at the White House, one that will be televised live (to a hard-to-believe 15 million viewers). Into the fray steps Grace, a young performer who suddenly finds herself in a room with three older men who have spent the last two decades performing together.

Through flashbacks and rehearsal scenes, complex interpersonal politics come out. Brilliant-but-unstable Dorian has a long-term relationship with overbearing first violinist Elliot. Cellist Carl struggles with cancer and the real sense that his time to make his mark is limited, while second violinist Alan tries to deal with all the intensity, while literally serving as second fiddle.

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Hollinger gets the vibe of musicians collaborating down perfectly (being a violinist certainly helps) and structures the single-act show like a musical piece, sporting slow and quick sections, paralleling earlier moments, or even creating variations on them. It all rises to a tremendous conclusion. Some of the script does feel a bit too Behind the Music, from Dorian's spiral into madness (punctuated by a scene set to music by the Beach Boys, perhaps just to underline the moment a few more times) to Carl's health struggles, but the script stays honest to its intentions and doesn't offer easy answers along the way.

It's also buoyed by a dynamite cast, who take up the bow and run with the characters. As the newcomer, Emily Gunyou Halaas serves in many ways as the audience's eyes, as Grace tries to navigate the mine field of decades of built-up issues. Paul de Cordova and Peter Christian Hansen bring out the foibles in Elliot and Dorian, and also have the spark to bring their personal relationship to life. Stephen D'Ambrose gives Carl the necessary edge in his even-tempered moments to make his occasional flares of anger (especially at the end) all the more real. David Mann breathes life in Alan, showcasing the long-standing hurts that live inside of the character.

The performers also have to act at being a string quartet, which they do with some success. They certainly have the silent interplay that distinguishes a chamber group in that they look like they are truly listening to each other play. They "perform" to taped music, and while their bowing is good, the lack of movement on the finger board is a bit distracting. They appear to be playing the same note on every piece all night long, which may work for a Phillip Glass piece, but probably not the epic Beethoven that sits at the heart of the play.

Opus runs through May 29.

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