- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 19, 2006

In “Opus,” Michael Hollinger’s genteel and involving play about the inner workings of a string quartet, chamber music is equated with lovemaking or a marriage, “only with more fidelity,” jokes Alan (Kyle Prue), the group’s libidinous violinist.

At its worst, “it is like swallowing Drano,” the brilliant violist Dorian (Karl Kippola) cracks. Mr. Hollinger, a classically trained violist and playwright, gives these and other tantalizing glimpses into the insular and emotionally combative world of a famous string quartet in a production at Baltimore’s Everyman Theatre.

Directed with sparkling musicality by John Vreeke, “Opus” may not blow you away with bombast, but its expression of fine feeling and its unseemly outbursts are delicately moving.

What’s so hard about four people playing together, you might ask? In a string quartet, the individual musicians must strive not only for mastery, but concord. In order to play seamlessly as one, they must agree on every note and interpretation.

Because most people can’t even settle on where to go to dinner, you can just imagine the frustrations and compromises associated with perfecting a piece of chamber music.

The members of the Lazare string quartet have been at it so long they speak their own language — a high-toned shorthand consisting of double entendres, literary allusions and music jokes that is incomprehensible to an outsider. That is what Grace (McKenzie Bowling), a violist fresh from the conservatory, encounters when she auditions for the spot newly vacated by Dorian, whose behavior became intolerably unpredictable.

In fact, it takes her a while to realize the group actually has offered her the gig. Grace has barely entered the boys club before she’s informed the quartet has exactly one week to nail Beethoven’s notoriously demanding “Opus 131” (it’s the one about which Schubert commented, “After this, what is left for us to write?”) in time for a televised performance at the White House.

“Opus” goes between the intense rehearsals for the performance and flashbacks into the musicians’ knotted history, confining the action to four black chairs and music stands that are framed within James Kronzer’s handsome inlaid wood set and Jay Herzog’s baroque golden light.

Dorian was the group’s greatest talent but also the biggest headache, and his firing came as a double whammy, coinciding with his breakup with the group’s unofficial leader, Elliot (Peter Wray), the uptight first violinist. Alan, the second violinist, is the quartet’s Lothario, and his dalliances with classical-music groupies cost him his marriage.

Cellist Carl (Stephen Patrick Martin) is an easygoing family man but is struggling with recurring cancer.

Mr. Hollinger’s stylish dialogue reveals the talents and neuroses of each quartet member with equal depth and skill. The exceptional cast captures the passions of the musicians, starting with Mr. Wray, who manages to make an officious fussbudget not only likable, but sympathetic.

In contrast, Mr. Kippola’s Dorian is a firebrand, a genius who doesn’t care what tumbles out of his mouth or how much it rankles others so long as he has the music.

Mr. Martin is genial and centered as Carl, but never boring, and Mr. Prue plays Alan with the zest of a lifelong roue who just can’t resist seduction. Miss Bowling, a recent graduate of University of Maryland, Baltimore County, gives Grace an appealing naivete and conveys the clammy awkwardness of a newcomer suddenly finding herself working in the big leagues.

Yet, Grace’s talent shines through, and when she transforms herself into a poised performer at the White House, it is a memorable Cinderella moment.

“Opus” also gives you an unexpected view of chamber music, which usually puts you in mind of periwigs and pantaloons, with steamy descriptions of playing Bach and other musical pieces that points up the intersection of art and sex.

Many of Mr. Hollinger’s previous plays, such “Red Herring” and “An Empty Place in the Cafe Du Grand Boeuf,” are witty, light spoofs. With “Opus,” he goes into richer territory in this exploration of artistic collaboration and individual temperament.


WHAT: “Opus” by Michael Hollinger

WHERE: Everyman Theatre, 1727 N. Charles St., Baltimore

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through Oct. 15.

TICKETS: $17 to $30

PHONE: 410/752-2208




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