Study of string quartet has five interesting pieces
WATERTOWN — In “Opus,’’ his play about the inner workings of a world-renowned string quartet, Michael Hollinger manages to be both hilarious and wise — not just about his fictional musicians, but about art, life, and the relationship between them. And as director Jim Petosa’s fine production for New Repertory Theatre makes clear, that’s a relationship with resonance even for people who’ve never played a note in their lives.
For the Lazara String Quartet is indeed in crisis, with its most gifted and most temperamental member, Dorian, having suddenly and mysteriously disappeared. The new violist who comes to take his place — the Lazara’s first woman — shifts the balance of the quartet in ways both expected and not.
The tension and complexity of the story build with each scene, in ways that often feel genuinely musical: Ideas recur with variations; scenes stand in counterpoint to one another; themes set out early on develop in satisfying ways as the action moves forward. But you don’t need to be deeply attuned to this “musical’’ structure to appreciate the play, for its characters alone would provide more than enough interest.
There’s Dorian, of course, who shows up regularly in flashback — and even more clearly in the way the other characters discuss him. Then there’s Elliot, who became first violin by a coin toss with Dorian, and who’s as controlled and measured in his playing as Dorian is spontaneous and wild.
Alan, the second violin, seems like a playful jokester at first but reveals hidden depths; cellist Carl loves a joke, too, but has even more going on beneath the surface. And Grace, of course — younger and female, she’s the outsider whose arrival disrupts and remakes all the dynamics of the group.
Petosa directs the strong, individual voices of the actors to create a vivid and unified whole. Each gets a chance to shine, but all five also work harmoniously together. Benjamin Evett’s Dorian is naturally the showiest role, and Evett makes the most of it; he lets us see both Dorian’s genius and his dangerous instability. Michael Kaye starts by making Elliot seem Dorian’s natural opposite and gradually, subtly reveals a darker side.
Shelley Bolman, as Alan, and Becky Webber, as Grace, share a light repartee that plays nicely against the darker drama between Elliot and Dorian. Webber also finds an exquisite balance between Grace’s nervousness and her drive.
But it’s Bates Wilder, perhaps, who turns in the strongest among these strong performances. He doesn’t let us read much into Carl at first; we simply see a big guy with a shaved head who just wants to play. As events unfold, however, Carl unfolds himself to us as well, so that by the end he’s become the surprising but inevitable center of the play. Wilder modulates each shift and revelation with a lovely delicacy.
Lovely, too, is Cristina Todesco’s understated set: little more than four chairs arranged on a platform, but with quiet touches that bring it to life. The platform is suspended by steel “strings,’’ and a strip of abstract square panels on the back wall, lit in ever-shifting patterns by Scott Pinkney, creates a kind of visual correlative to the theme-and-variations structure of both the play and the music it celebrates.
As for that music, sound designer Benjamin Emerson finds a variety of ways to weave the compositions mentioned in the script into the very fabric of the production. He and Petosa also handle the nettlesome issue of having (presumably) non-string-playing actors effectively represent professional musicians onstage: The show begins with the recorded music already playing as the actors take up their bows, so that we see a tableau of a string quartet rather than any (doomed) attempt to persuade us that we’re really watching them play.
That lightness of touch is key to the production’s success. “Opus’’ has a lot to say about the value of art and its place in our lives, as well as about the ways in which a passionate devotion to art, or to any ideal, can distort our relations with other people. But it wears its wisdom lightly — and that lets us share in carrying a bit of it away at the end.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at email@example.com.