Circle Theatre Opus: A Musical Game of Life

Four chairs make a first class string quartet, five gifted musicians scheming and vying to fill them…who gets no chair, and the broken heart, when the music stops? Learn the truth watching Circle Theatre’s southwestern premiere production of Michael Hollinger’s elegant, heart-stopping Opus, running at the Sundance Square venue in downtown Ft. Worth through March 13. It’s a lyrical, brilliant work, thrilling audiences and critics alike since 2006.

Circle Theatre's cast of Opus

In this real life-inspired Hollinger play, after years of grueling practice, perfectionist fears, personal sacrifice, dreams realized and dashed, petty jealousy and fleeting instances of love and connection, peak moments of brilliance and truth arrive. And pass. Whether it’s a passionate personal admission of what it means to face terminal cancer or the jubilant euphoria the fictional Lazara Quartet experiences collectively as the applause dies down after a command performance for the US president, the audience observes those fleeting moments as they pass by on stage. The recognition of those moments is the rare, exquisite, deeply human, yet transcendent essence of Hollinger’s masterpiece, his opus, about the personal, professional and back stage lives of five top-flight musicians.

They rehearse; they record; they give documentary interviews; they hire and fire; they fight over musical execution nuance and the lighting levels in performance halls.  They love, cherish and betray each other. Life reaches a crescendo, as they perform Beethoven’s Opus 131 for that one shining moment, with the music “flowing through all four of us like an electric current”. The audience recognizes the quartet’s uniqueness along with its common humanity. After seeing a vibrant production like Circle Theatre’s Opus, it’s hard to leave the theatre without believing that humans can and will make life better and more beautiful. The quartet’s pure commitment to the music, the vital experience of it, elicits a transcendent grace.

TCU Theatre professor Alan Shorter took on a leviathan of a challenge in agreeing to direct Opus, the opening act of Circle Theatre’s 29th Season. His set consists primarily of four simple armless chairs with corresponding music stands; actors adjust the seating arrangements in dim light from scene to scene. The play’s fifteen scenes unfold in staccato fashion, moving back in forth in time with symphonic complexity, allowing for sparse, stylized set and costume change as they flow along uninterrupted. Shorter’s actors learned the play as an organic, orchestrated whole to be ready to leap into the next moment fully energized and cognizant of situation, mood, blocking and whatever took place before the scene began.

We first meet the five musicians in the middle of an individualized documentary film interview in flashback, with rapid overlapping dialogue. They jump immediately to a present day audition for a new quartet member with more witty, fast-paced conversation, followed by a short flashback duet-style dialogue interview (with intense romantic overtones) with the first violinist and his violist lover. The play then leaps back to the present at the second violinist’s apartment, for an expository scene with a new violist who shows up two hours early for rehearsal…. all scenes are clearly defined in setting, time and pace. The crowning challenge for director and cast (and an amazing accomplishment in execution) is how they cleverly integrate musical performance on stage. Starting with the alla danza tedesca from Beethoven’s Opus 130 in the play’s Prelude, the five actors must simulate playing excerpts from more than six sophisticated, complicated movements and sequences for quartet, performing them with accuracy, assurance and passion, at the same time not dropping a word or nuance from a line of overlaid dialogue. They bow with real bows (silenced) on real instruments, without fingering, while a recorded quartet plays the actual selections. Director Shorter told me in a pre-performance interview that he and the cast felt like they were rehearsing two plays simultaneously, a musical superimposed on a straight stage play. The simulation effect is remarkably realistic and believable under Shorter’s focused tutelage; the audience cannot guess that two cast members don’t read music at all. The opening night performance I attended hit its notes head on and true under Shorter’s able baton. A direct result of Shorter comprehensive skill as a professional musician as well as his wealth of experience as a composer, conductor, pianist, and national tour music and stage director, this unique conceit of Hollinger’s Opus comes off without a hitch.

Life sometimes feels like soap opera, imitating “art” instead of the other way around. Opus’ plot and characters head down that entertaining path as well, offering an experienced, gutsy ensemble of actors ample opportunity to explore a full range of passion-filled emotion in a short span of time and space. Ulterior motives, revenge, love sacrificed and spurned, rampant opportunism, the mysterious disappearance and timely reappearance of a key musician and a one-of-a-kind instrument, cancer, budding romance, a “chance of a lifetime” concert playing a command performance for the Commander-in-chief: these issues all intertwine here in torchy, tuxedo-clad glory, just as they might in real life. Or on daytime television.

Shorter’s cast rises to the challenge to find solid, “real life” moments. Cellist Carl (David H. M. Lambert) functions as the moral compass of the quartet and lurks at its periphery, telling corny jokes while attempting to reel in some of the cruel tongue-lashings other quartet members dole out, and settling raging disputes with a simple coin toss, upholding the group’s democratic ethos. A dedicated family man with a stray binky in his pocket, Carl has endured cancer and understands the meaning of life lived as a ticking time bomb. With powerful physicality Lambert lends a sonorous dignity to the role, as well as delivers some of the play’s best laugh lines with resonant punch. When his cancer returns and the quartet spins off into emotional overdrive, Carl exhibits Promethean strength of character, earning audience empathy and respect. Lambert steers clear of melodrama in his portrayal of a cancer victim and finds simple, natural levels. “Play every note,” he urges newcomer violist Grace, with gentle resignation, eminently aware of his precarious future. Live every moment as if it really counts. Lambert makes Carl so easy to love.

Circle Theatre's cast of Opus

The stakes here are highest for Elliott, first violinist and group leader. He’s talented but no virtuoso, organized and fully committed to the quartet’s success to a compulsive-obsessive fault. Holding the group together for over ten years has become his  raison d’etre.  Elias Taylorson as Elliott employs an array of vocal, mental and physical skills to explore the peaks and valleys Hollinger’s script affords him. A pissy diva, Elliott can be funny. He also can be manipulative and cruel. Hollinger’s intentionally symphonic script inspires Taylorson to emote fluently as Elliott, almost in counterpoint with the music performed during the show. “Our work is ephemeral. Like us,” intones a lyrically persuasive Elliott attempting to seduce the newly recruited violist with his aspirations for the quartet. “A Beethoven cycle, though, well, that might feel like an opus, something…worthy of posterity.” Taylorson just received a 2010 Dallas ‘Column Award’ for Best Actor in a Non-Equity Play for his 2009 performance in Upstart Productions’ Talk Radio.

As Elliot’s lover and unreliable, chemically-dependent violist Dorian, Mark Shum has a special acting challenge. Deemed the “wunderkind” of the quartet, he needs to exude enough inspired passion to “channel Mozart”. Yet as written by Hollinger, Dorian is shown playing an instrument fewer times than anyone else in the play; he never performs a solo where he could demonstrate his Gift and solidify his character. Shum’s Dorian clowns effectively as the irresponsible bad boy of the quartet, but the script never shows him profoundly inspired by the music or driven by intense desire to get back into the quartet any way he can. He reveals the clearest glimpse of Dorian’s inner soul when he encounters his replacement Grace warming up before she auditions for the Pittsburgh Symphony. He asks to borrow the viola she is playing for her audition, the special Lazara he used to play in the quartet, for his own audition. He explains softly, almost apologetically, “the viola I borrowed doesn’t know the notes.” In that moment the audience senses a hint of Dorian’s hypersensitive, if nonchalant, genius.

Meg Bauman, playing recent college graduate and new violist Grace, balances her untested novice persona with driving ambition. Vulnerable yet practical, she allows herself to be beguiled by Elliott’s manipulative mentoring to a point. When push comes to shove, Grace looks out for Grace. She appears almost angelic when playing the viola, but she’s no altruistic saint. Grasp that paycheck with health benefits, first; follow the art, after. “She’s got her future to think of,” snarls Elliott in the play’s final scene, when the survival of the Lazara Quartet lies in question, and Grace turns her back on him. Bauman’s Grace doesn’t show much emotion but reveals her opportunistic objectives clearly. She is the independent “artist contractor” of the future. Curious that Hollinger chose to name this character “grace”.

Jakie Cabe, playing Alan, the second violinist and play’s sometime narrator, conveys a consistent warmth and easy-going sincerity throughout. Not the most committed musician in the quartet, Alan’s concern for the missing Dorian (maybe a suicide?), as well as his desire to keep everyone else on an even keel, is keenly palpable in Cabe’s portrayal. Alan’s the one “regular guy” in the quartet, divorced but grounded, thrust into a miasma of extreme temperaments and personalities. He never misses the chance to appeal for “normalcy.” The audience can breathe a needed sigh of relief every time Alan interacts on stage. It’s perfectly understandable and fitting, in both the musical and plot line sense, for Alan to offer the play’s final words. Addressing the audience with a chuckle, he exclaims, “End! Why should it end? …Well obviously it’s got to end sometime, right? The rest is silence…You play your part the best you can till you run out of notes, and the rest…is….” Lights fade on Cabe’s Alan, smiling reassuringly.

After seeing a vibrant production like Circle Theatre’s Opus, it’s hard to leave the theatre without believing that humans, even flawed ones, can and will make life better and more beautiful.

The southwestern premiere of Michael Hollinger’s Opus runs through March 13 at Circle Theatre. Go to http://www.circletheatre.com or call 817-877-3040 for tickets.

Circle Theatre is located at 230 W 4th St, in Fort Worth, TX.

Set design by Clare Floyd deVries, lighting by John Leach, sound by David H. M. Lambert, costumes by Drenda Lewis, and dramaturgy by Dorothy Sanders.

This Week in the Arts 2/10/2010 netcast interview with director Alan Shorter: http://thisweekinthearts.flowercast.net/

Violist turned Playwright Michael Hollinger’s website: http://www.michaelhollinger.com

PHOTOS by Glen E. Ellman–

TOP: l to r- Meg Bauman, Elias Taylorson, Jakie Cabe, Mark Shum, David H.M. Lambert (seated)

BOTTOM: l to r – Elias Taylorson, Jakie Cabe, Mark Shum, David H.M.Lambert, Meg Bauman

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4 thoughts on “Circle Theatre Opus: A Musical Game of Life

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  3. Pingback: High-Strung: Inside a Chamber Group Onstage | Art&Seek | Arts, Music, Culture for North Texas

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