The life and times of a string quartet at the Rep

Photo Chris Bennion

Photo Chris Bennion

By: Lorin Wilkerson

Seattle Repertory Theatre turns to music as a central theme with playwright Michael Hollinger’s hilarious, moving, and insightful work Opus at the Leo K. Theatre. The play offers a detailed look into the frenetic existence of the imaginary world-class Lazara Quartet as they begin preparations for the gig of a lifetime at the White House. They have only one week to prepare the monumental Beethoven string quartet Opus 131 with brand-new violist Grace (Chelsey Rives), a fresh-faced, idealistic young woman who presents a stark contrast to the world-weary companions who have made music together for decades.

Hollinger’s insight as a violist who has played many string quartets was obvious; judicious name-dropping, high-brow insider’s jokes and the occasional below-the-belt one liner were present throughout, and even when the play got more serious as it moved toward the climax there were countless, genuinely hilarious moments. His portrayal of the volcanic frustrations and sometimes uncomfortable intimacy thrust upon men of mercurial temperament who have worked together so closely for so long, on something as personal as this music, never comes off as anything other than sincere. The love, cynicism and rancor between the men, and sometimes between them and their music, paints an honest, multi-layered portrait of these complex relationships.

The delivery by the five actors was by and large extremely convincing, and their timing was impeccable in the oft razor-sharp repartee called for by Hollinger’s dialogue. Of particular note was Allen Fitzpatrick’s brilliant performance as Elliot, the harried, antagonistic first violinist who is tormented by the fact that his lover Dorian (Todd Jefferson Moore), who is a much better musician than he, had been relegated to the viola despite Dorian’s superior skills, his ability to “hear things that we don’t,” as the second violinist portrayed by Shawn Belyea puts it.

The structure of the work is non-linear and consists of many flashbacks that flesh out the circumstances behind Dorian’s mysterious disappearance, shortly after erratic behavior forces his ouster from the quartet at the beginning of the play. One feels genuine sympathy for the plight of this bi-polar genius whose unpredictable personality dooms any attempt to seal the rifts in his disintegrating relationship with the maddeningly self-absorbed Elliot. Rapid-fire changes of the minimalist set served to highlight the quick firing-off of the flashback sequences, and the soundtrack was poignant and familiar; lots of Bach and Beethoven. Hollinger succeeds marvelously in portraying the passion, love and conflict the characters feel toward their music and each other; indeed one of Hollinger’s stated purposes was to use the intimacy of the players as an allegorical tool to portray the inter-play between the instruments in a string quartet.

One might have liked a bit more (indeed, any at all) finger movement by the actors as an added verisimilitude, but thanks to Hollinger’s clever writing, the time-span in which the audience watches the group ’play’ music without moving their fingers is relatively short. The structure is such that the play takes about 90 minutes and is uninterrupted by intermission, so that by the time the shocker at the finale takes place, the audience is breathless and wondering if it’s actually over. The standing ovation was well-deserved.

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