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Theater Review: “Opus” at Olney Theatre Center

The clash of personalities in a string quartet hits the right notes

In Michael Hollinger's "Opus," members of the Lazara String Quartet struggle to prepare for a White House performance. Photograph courtesy Olney Theatre Center

☆☆☆ stars out of four

There are two things you need to know before you go to see Opus by violinist-turned-playwright Michael Hollinger. A play about a string quartet is going to include a lot of chamber music. And none of the actors on stage are going to actually play any of it. The performers in this production do the orchestral equivalent of lip-synching—bowing and fingering furiously without producing a note of music.

The able cast of Opus does a very good job at this. It worked for me. But a musical purist might have a problem with it.

That said, the play is not really about the music. It’s about the four personalities who create it. The world-famous Lazara String Quartet, a Grammy-winning ensemble with many world concert tours under its belt, has been asked to perform at the White House. One of the group’s teachers once explained that, ideally, a string quartet should sound like four instruments played with a single bow. At this point, the strings of that bow are at the breaking point.

For 90 minutes without intermission, the audience is part of every rehearsal. The stage is bare except for four chairs, lights, music stands, and microphones. As the newly-constituted quartet rehearses Beethoven, new conflicts arise, old secrets are revealed, and the music changes tempo constantly.

Watching the making of a concert piece is fascinating. Seeing the personalities clash, flow together, and fly apart is even more so. Michael Kaye’s Elliott demands center stage much of the time—he is prissy, relentless, and unable to express any emotion except contempt. In contrast, Benjamin Evett’s Dorian is all unbridled emotion. Flashbacks show his brilliance as an artist, his history with Elliott, and his key role in the founding of quartet.

These two players make the play, although all five have wonderful moments. As Carl the cellist, Paul Morella is so controlled that when he finally breaks down, you cannot look away.

There are a few times when Opus is a little too lento. Olney artistic director Jim Petosa could have picked up the pace a bit. But on the whole, this group of consummate professionals manages to make some lovely music together.

“Opus” is at Olney Theatre Center through July 3. Tickets ($26 to $54) are available through the Olney Theatre Web site.

Editor's note: This piece originally listed incorrect ticket prices. We apologize for any inconvenience.

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