Composing a quartet
New TheatreWorks play introduces audiences — and actors — to the world of chamber music
TheatreWorks' new play, "Opus," is set in the heights — the prestigious atmosphere of a string quartet preparing to perform at the White House.
Written by classically trained violist Michael Hollinger, the play conjures up the string quartet's world with the terms and tempi of chamber music. Still, Hollinger doesn't describe "Opus" in rarefied language.
"The play is really a workplace play. It's like watching 'ER' or 'L.A. Law'; it's watching people trying to accomplish something together despite their personalities and failings," he said. "'Opus' means 'work.'"
There's plenty of drama involved in doing this work, and not just in the Bartok. The pressure starts early in the play, as young violist Grace (played by Jennifer Le Blanc) auditions for the esteemed Lazara Quartet. She gets the job, replacing the ousted and explosive Dorian (Mark Anderson Phillips). Dorian also happens to be the former lover of Elliot (Richard Frederick), the first violinist.
Meanwhile, the play also reflects the more everyday — but also emotion-laden — issues that come up in ensembles everywhere.
Palo Alto cellist and conductor Kris Yenney, the production's string-quartet advisor, has worked to help the actors understand their characters' roles and hierarchy. For example, Yenney helped actor Jackson Davis, who plays second violinist Alan, with his character's motivation by helping him understand Alan's "second-violinist syndrome." She said, "He's hesitant to voice his opinion."
Musicians in the audience may recognize themselves on stage, but Yenney said she thinks the play holds appeal even for people who aren't interested in classical music. She calls the characters "hilarious and irreverent," adding, "It's a finely drawn story."
This is the first Bay Area production of "Opus," which premiered in Philadelphia in 2006. Hollinger has written several plays, musicals and screenplays set as far afield as medieval France, 1950s Boston and 1960s Paris. Needless to say, he found the research process for "Opus" less taxing.
"This was basically here, basically now, and basically guys my age who make their living in the arts. I could get more quickly into the world of the play," he said. "I didn't have to figure out how people talk. That's the water I swim in."
While Hollinger no longer performs as a violist, he holds a degree from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, and has long seen a link between writing and music. He said he finds his "Opus" dialogue particularly musical.
"There are musical devices in the language," he said. "What is a unison? What's the equivalent of dissonance? ... A thought might be broken up among four characters as a melodic line might be broken up."
In "Opus," he said, there are many places where the concept of "unison" is reflected in the script, with characters saying the same thing at the same time. In another moment, three people are trying to voice different opinions at once, and, he said, "We register it emotionally as conflict and register it aurally as dissonance."
Then there are two inter-cut monologues that "speak to each other," when the characters of Dorian and Elliot recall how they met while being assigned to play a Bach piece together at music school, Hollinger said.
"It's a really ecstatic experience of discovering an almost sexual response to this music. ... It's about how these two violin lines are rolling over each other; at one point you can't tell which is which. The music is really exquisite that way," he said.
Along with his music history, Hollinger is also well versed in theater. When he was growing up, he and his parents were very involved in community theater on the East Coast. From a young age he helped his parents learn their lines, or trod the boards himself. Even while at Oberlin he was writing one-acts and a musical. He ultimately earned a master's degree in theater at Villanova University, and today is an assistant theater professor there.
Hollinger is now working on several new musicals and plays, including a play called "Ghost Writer" set to premiere this fall in Philadelphia.
Meanwhile, the TheatreWorks team, led by director Meredith McDonough, is working toward a June 5 opening night. Kris Yenney is more used to playing cello in the orchestra pit or serving as music director, as she's done for many TheatreWorks shows, but it's clear that being an advisor has been a most enjoyable challenge.
The actors don't have a lot of musical experience, so much of her job is coaching them on how to hold and move their instruments, miming performing, while the recorded music plays. It's a sort of choreography.
But moving like a musician is more than just playing. Yenney has also helped the actors with the visual, eye-contact communication that is second nature to members of a small musical ensemble. Yenney is used to working with new musicians as director of two Palo Alto Chamber Orchestra ensembles, and here she finds herself again reminding players not to keep their faces down in their music stands.
Even the music stands themselves must get the proper treatment. Just the other day, Yenney had to coach the actors on the proper way to put away their stands. "They were sort of twisting them into shapes that no musician would do," she said, laughing.
What: "Opus," a play by Michael Hollinger, presented by TheatreWorks
Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St.
When: The show previews June 2, 3 and 4 and then opens June 5, running through June 27.
Cost: Tickets are $27-$39 for previews and $29-$62 for regular performances.
Info: Go to theatreworks.org or call 650-463-1960.