Remember the VH1 series Behind the Music? Each episode chronicled the rise, fall and comeback of rock and pop musicians. There was always that moment, usually after the second set of commercials and after the musician's/band's beginnings had been documented, when the narrator uttered the sentence that became such a hallmark of the show that it has been parodied by no less than The Simpsons: "And then it all came crashing down."
What followed was always the best part of the program, the juicy stuff: Success begat excessive partying (drugs, booze, orgies) and sometimes crime (arson, theft, murder). Worse, it created in-fighting among bands members. Any combination of the above would form the type of fustercluck that loves nothing more than to snowball into a meltdown of Milli Vanilli proportions. In some cases, it caused the band's demise. But more often, the group rebounded, depending on how one measures comeback success. Some of these groups ended up performing in arenas again (The Police, Bon Jovi), while others were relegated to headlining auto part-store openings, and their CDs dumped in 99-cent bins (hello, Vanilla Ice).
Michael Hollinger's play Opus, now having its area premiere in a brilliantly pitched production at Fort Worth's Circle Theatre, is kind of like that. Except that it doesn't waste time on setting up a music group's origins, and overly dramatic narration isn't necessary. That's all handled expertly in Hollinger's dialogue and character interplay.
And, oh, the musicians on the downward spiral in this story are in a type of group that's more likely to be discussed on NPR than VH1.
The Lazara String Quartet is a world-famous ensemble. Its prized members are pompous violinist Elliot (Elias Taylorson), good-natured violist Alan (Jake Cabe), mentally unstable violinist Dorian (Mark Shum) and grounded family man, cellist Carl (David H.M. Lambert). (It's interesting that the most down-to-earth character plays the instrument that actually touches the ground.)
When Dorian goes missing from the group (the reason shan't be spoiled here), the other three audition violinists for the open slot. Grace (Meg Bauman) is a talented young player who, once the Lazara boys hear her, is offered the job. She's good. Real good. Therefore, she has other auditions and offers on the table. But there isn't time for Lazara, which must find a fourth player immediately in order to make an important gig, a nationally televised event at the White House.
Through a series of short, staccato scenes, the action time-jumps to show what happened with Dorian and how it affected the group. But the other players have issues, too. Carl is still dealing with cancer treatment, Alan and Grace have a mild flirtation that might threaten the group, and Elliot and Dorian were once lovers. Things become even more complicated when a beautiful, matching violin and viola from a noted Italian luthier are added to the mix.
With any group of people who are at the top of their field, egos will butt and tempers flair. What's so enthralling about Opus is that, while it focuses on a string quartet, it taps into what could potentially happen with any collaboration among folks who possess talent, intelligence and passion in spades. And don't forget narcissism. Any combo of those can be extra deadly. Der-rama will happen.
Who doesn't love to watch that, from the outside looking in?
Directed by Alan Shorter of Texas Christian University, the Circle production is as tight as a violin string at the bridge, with probably the most perfect casting imaginable from the local acting pool. Lambert's character has the heaviest issue, what with a potentially fatal disease, and therefore, mortality. But Lambert maintains Carl's sense of order and control. Cabe is the happy-go-lucky guy who's all too willing to be a doormat, but too smart to let hormones interfere with a career for which he has prepared since he was a wee lad. Bauman conjures the complexity of a young talent conflicted by the messages she's receiving from her heart and her brain, but never slides into the realm of ice queen.
Shum finds the right mix of mystery, desperation and warmth that come packaged in folks who are so brilliant and gifted that they're also a bit insane. Taylorson taps into whatever that thing is that makes gay men of a certain age and intellect arrogant and bitchy, but not flamboyant. He might even have a sleazy side, but no one would dare call him out on that.
All of them are to be commended for convincingly "playing" their instruments in the rehearsal scenes, without ever touching bow to string. (Should that happen, the strings have been soaked in water to prevent any noise.) All of the music is recorded, so kudos to the sound designer (who happens to be Lambert) and sound board operator for syncing that up.
The scenes change for rehearsals at each of Lazara's members' houses, so there are minor set-piece changes and chair switchings—musical chairs, if you will—between scenes. Scenic designer Clare Floyd DeVries' main motif is the kind of sleek wood paneling you would find in a fine recital hall. John Leach's poetic lighting sets the mood, but never distracts.
Despite throwing out music terms and the names of Bartok and Beethoven string quartet compositions, the play isn't esoteric. Holllinger, who also wrote the genius farce Incorruptible, successfully done at Circle last year, was a violist himself. He studied at the Conservatory of Music at Oberlin College, and his passion for the subject shows. But he's also a skilled dramatist, deft with character dynamics.
Shorter keeps the proceedings moving briskly, and carefully builds to a surprising and melodramatic crescendo that will have audience members asking "How'd they do that?" Chalk it up to the magic of theater—and good properties design (by Cathy O'Neal, who is a TheaterJones contributor). It's that moment especially that brings to mind artist Bruce Nauman's series of neon art and drawings that play with the images and words violins and violence.
What a compelling juxtaposition. It's expected of rock or hip-hop musicians to have epic ego clashes that lead to angry outbursts (and far-worse actions). But that's not so much the case with specialists of classical music, in which performance is more focused on the notes spewing forth from the instruments, rather than spectacle and egocentric lyrics.
What's never considered is that the bow, required for playing string instruments, might just as easily become a tool for slicing someone else's throat.