SANTA FE, N.M. — The tight harmonies of a chamber quartet descend into dissonance when one member is dumped and his replacement arrives: young, brilliant and female.
And, of course, this occurs as the group is preparing for the biggest concert of its career.
This struggle to seek out a comfortable balance within the group and success on the wider stage is the basis of Michael Hollinger’s play “Opus,” which is being performed over the next three weekends at the Adobe Rose Theatre.
While the play happens to be particularly timely for Santa Fe – the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival gets underway this Sunday – the timing is coincidental. The play itself, while deeply tied to music, also expresses a universal ebb and flow of romantic relationships, said director Staci Robbins.
“It’s a beautiful, beautiful show,” she said, adding that she had worked with the play previously in New Orleans.
Actor Eli Goodman summed it up this way: “We’re talking non-stop for 90 minutes – and occasionally yelling.”
He has the part of the Elliot, the quartet member playing first violin, who fired his ex-lover from the quartet after his behavior became too erratic. The fired musician was a musical genius and stepping in to take his place is a young woman who may share his talent, but presents the other tightly woven musicians with the prospect of incorporating someone half their age and of a different gender.
“Elliot is very much committed to see this group succeed,” Goodman said of his role. Yet the character has concerns about his own musical shortcomings and faces a series of tension-producing choices leading up to a major concert.
By the end, Goodman said, “From his point of view, everyone has made mistakes.”
Both Goodman and Robbins are relatively new to Santa Fe theater scene, arriving about three years ago, and this is their first venture with local theater. But each comes with plenty of experience.
A Santa Fe native who graduated from the University of New Mexico, Goodman spent 10 years in Chicago, getting a graduate degree at DePaul University and performing with a host of theater groups, including with Steppenwolf and Victory Gardens theaters. Then he spent 10 years in Los Angeles, taking roles in movies, television shows and commercials before he, his wife and daughter came back to Santa Fe. (His day job, he said, is with a medical cannabis business.)
For her part, Robbins has acted in and directed plays, and managed theater companies, across the country, as well as teaching her craft. She started performing at age 7 in a radio variety show in Richmond, Va., that featured her grandmother and aunts, the Mann Sisters, as regular guests. The aunts’ claim to fame was playing the piano cross-handed, she said.
“I sang with them,” Robbins said. When she was only 8, she played Scout in a touring production of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” In 2014, she directed that play for a collaborative effort of Mother Road Theatre Company and the Albuquerque Little Theatre.
Both of them have nabbed acting work in films and TV shows filming in New Mexico.
Maureen McKenna, co-founder of the Adobe Rose, recruited Robbins to come direct a play to replace the previously scheduled “Rapture, Blister, Burn” after the departure of artistic director Wendy Chapin. “For the theater to thrive, it needs to bring in other directors,” said McKenna.
Robbins said she suggested “Opus” because it seemed a good fit for the Adobe Rose’s space, which allows her to present it “in the round,” with the audience surrounding the stage. First performed in Philadelphia in 2006, “Opus” was written by Michael Hollinger, who was trained as a classical violinist, but decided not to pursue a career in music.
At the Adobe Rose, presenting the play in the round creates a challenge for staging, with actors needing to move and shift the directions they face, rather than remain in the static set of chairs in which the quartet would be playing.
And, of course, they need to learn how to mimic playing an instrument.
Goodman, who said he does not play an instrument, said, “Faking it’s easy.” The hard part, he said, is remembering which stance to take when.
A conductor came up from Albuquerque to coach the actors – other roles are filled by Tom Schuch, Alexandra Renzo, Aaron Leventman and Jon Reiser – on a musician’s posture, how an instrument is held and more.
The actors hold the bow just above the strings and don’t even try to imitate the fingering to make the chords, while recorded music is played that is specifically designed for the play – it’s all classical: Bach and Pachelbel, with the major piece by Beethoven. In the context of the action, the audience really does come to believe that the actors are playing the music, Robbins said.
Noting that she had been general manager for a chamber music group in Albuquerque and managed the Richmond Symphony, Robbins said she has seen the dynamic that occurs among musicians, both onstage and off. They behave as professionally as possible in front of the audience, but might walk off stage to have a screaming match in the next room, she said.
“Any time anything is built around so much pressure,” Robbins said, “there’s always room for breaks here and there – tiffs as well as romantic attraction.”