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Musical chairs at the White House: Opus 

The violin's the thing in Charlotte Shakespeare's latest production

There are a couple of good reasons why playwright Michael Hollinger sets the climactic action of Opus in the White House. Replacing a member of an esteemed string quartet becomes more dramatic when the ensemble is already booked for a command performance in front of the president, with live TV cameras beaming the event to millions. The new violist, Grace, must learn the music, play it to the high standard already established by the Lazara Quartet, and mesh with her fellow musicians on a late Beethoven quartet that generated dissension in the group before the previous violist was fired. All this under the time constraint of a high-pressure, high-stakes imperative for the group to perform at its best.

Only gradually do we discover the thematic aptness of the White House in Hollinger's play. Rehearsing and performing a chamber work — like a theater piece, an opera, a symphony or a ballet — is a collaborative effort. With the Lazaras, artistic decisions are made by the group, not by a leader, though it's tacitly assumed that the most important voice among equals in the string quartet repertoire is the first violinist. Unless all are agreed, the group won't even perform a particular quartet. What we're watching, as the group irons out its personal and artistic differences, is democracy in action. The tense game of musical chairs that suddenly breaks out among Lazara members past and present, within shouting distance of the president and his guests, is nothing less than a coup d'etat, handled with all the devastating coolness of a Congressional vote.

If you're wondering why Charlotte Shakespeare would be the company to bring us Opus, then you need look no further than its co-founders, Elise Wilkinson and Joe Copley, and their affinity for Hollinger. The first time they performed together was in 2005, when they were cast in the BareBones Theatre Group production of Hollinger's An Empty Plate in the Cafe du Grand Boeuf. When Char Shakes was more schizoid a couple of Novembers ago — Charlotte Shakespeare in the warmer months, Collaborative Arts in the cold — they brought us Hollinger's ecclesiastical comedy, Incorruptible, also at Duke Energy Theatre.

Staging at the Duke by guest director Matt Cosper is more staid and conventional than the stadium-style Incorruptible, with Copley now wearing three hats, co-producing with Wilkinson, designing the staved mahogany backdrop, and manning the first seat in the Lazara Quartet as Elliot. Hollinger designs the realignment so that it touches off some sexual hot buttons. The former violist, Dorian, was Elliot's partner until their personal quarrel led to his dismissal, and Grace, the new replacement, rouses the blood of second violinist Alan — and the protective instincts of Carl, the cellist.

Carl is the most aloof and taciturn of the quartet members, yet his past bouts with cancer are a steady undercurrent in the intricate plotting, edging toward the magical milepost of five years in remission. But the most artfully woven plot elements are two matched instruments, a violin and a viola, crafted from the same tree by the master luthier that the quartet is named after. It is Dorian who secures the donation of the instruments from a wealthy benefactress — on the condition that the instruments will always belong to the ensemble rather than any of its individual members.

The gift rekindles an ancient resentment between the lovers. Dorian is actually the greater violinist of the two, the greater artist, the punctilious perfectionist when the quartet comes into the recording studio to complete their cycle of Beethoven recordings. With this priceless instrument in his hands, he once again aspires to share the first violin chair as is often done in elite quartets, where the two violinists agree to switch parts for different works in their repertoire. But Elliot is the steadier of the two musicians, less prone to sulking or to petulant outbursts, and able to navigate life without meds.

Grace and Dorian are also opposites. He's a daring risk-taker, as fearless in his playing as he is sure of how the score should be interpreted. Grace has a tendency to play it safe — in life and in music — hedging her bets. When she's first offered the viola chair, she turns it down because she has an upcoming audition to be principal violist in the Pittsburgh Symphony. Ironically, the two meet at the Pittsburgh audition, where they each receive something precious from one another as they vie for the same chair. Dorian prevails upon Grace to lend him the Lazara for his audition. She, in turn, gets his best advice: "Go for it!"

Cosper has a superb cast and, with relatively little rehearsal time available to them, emphasizes the personalities more than the musicians. When Cosper's sound design is potted up, the Lazaras will bow their instruments. Just don't expect them to simulate actual fingerings, vibratos or the private, interpersonal glances and expressions that galvanize a true chamber music performance.

Ah, but what a fascinating mix of personalities! Copley is in his prime métier, meting out the sangfroid of Elliot, always giving us a whiff of the insecurities that lurk underneath. Ron Kahn makes an auspicious Charlotte debut as Dorian, pushed to portray the volatile violist as a little more annoying — and a lot less charismatically brilliant — than many actors or directors would choose. It's a calculated risk that pays off handsomely.

James K. Flynn is quietly charming and self-assured as the lecherous Alan, curiously soothing as one of our narrators — and as the swing vote in the denouement. If you remember Matthew Corbett as Chief Bromden in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, another big man with a long fuse, you'll find that eruption to be a mere prelude to what he achieves here in a touching performance as Carl.

Eight years after blipping on my radar screen as Viola in Twelfth Night up at NC Shakes in High Point, Gretchen McGinty proves she can still do the ingenue as Grace — with a mannish edge when needed. She is youthful beauty and timidity as the young violist, but there is enough steely resolve and self-interest in her to make her very capable of treachery.

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