Artists are passionate people. We have been taught this through overwrought plays and movies about famous and not-so-famous musicians, painters, actors and writers, tortured souls who often lived their lives in extremes. What’s so appealing about Michael Hollinger’s play Opus is that he is delivers a compelling story about five classical musicians experiencing a series of personal and professional upheavals without sinking into melodrama.
The Lazara String Quartet has been playing to great critical acclaim for decades, producing recordings, touring the world and even winning a Grammy. Elliot, the group’s leader and fussy first violinist, has been lovers with Dorian, the boyishly flighty violist for many years. The pair’s volatile relationship and Dorian’s increasingly unstable mental health has led Elliot and the two remaining members to fire him from the group, leaving Dorian missing and presumed dead. With a live televised performance from the White House of Beethoven’s challenging Opus 131 fast approaching, a fourth member must be found, and quickly. Enter Grace, a talented but inexperienced young woman who is both excited and cowed to be performing with the men she has admired for years. The music is provided by The Vertigo String Quartet, and the actors mimic the playing of their instruments capably.
A series of flashbacks deliver insight into how the quartet functioned with Dorian, and monologues (“interviews” for an infamous documentary that was produced about the men) allow each character to offer their personal views about performing, music, and functioning as an often claustrophobic surrogate family. We see how much Carl, the peacekeeping cellist, loves his wife and kids, making it all the more heartbreaking when it’s revealed he is battling serious health problems. Alan, the divorced second violinist, lives a lonely life that begins to open up as he connects with Grace. These characters are more than simple sketches; their desires and motivations are authentic and add dimension to what would otherwise be an exaggerated squabble.
Bringing depth to the members of the Lazara String Quartet are five actors who harmonize seamlessly, allowing each to take their solo before blending back into a strong supporting undercurrent. As Elliot, Elias Taylorson is suave and pompous, a diva who has no qualms about issuing a snide remark or throwing a mini-tantrum. Mark Shum is a formidable opponent, allowing his Dorian to be flamboyant, pathetic and wise in equal measures. Jakie Cabe captures an everyman charm, throwing out quips and keeping the group’s spirits up even when tensions (consistently) rise. Exuding quiet strength and a touching vulnerability is David H. M. Lambert as Carl. And Meg Bauman keeps Grace from slipping into the role of nervous mouse, giving her a surprising amount of backbone.
Directed by Alan Shorter, Opus really soars when it gives the audience special access into the world of musicians. To hear the group bicker about poco più allegro and marcatissimo is akin to following an argument in a fascinating foreign language. While the understanding is dampened, the meaning becomes that much clearer.
Pictured: Meg Bauman, Jakie Cabe, David H.M. Lambert, and Elias Taylorson in Opus. (Photo: Glen E. Ellman for Circle Theatre)