PlayMakers Repertory Company
Through Oct. 11
The university can be a dangerous place for art-makers, because its security blunts the risks of failure. Often art in the academy has lost its highs and lows. But first-rate artists do sometimes congregate in academic departments—and occasionally, they thrive there long-term, making a lie of the bitter phrase "Those that can't, teach."
Ray Dooley, professor in UNC's Department of Dramatic Art and 20-year veteran of PlayMakers Repertory Company, is one such. His startling performance in PRC's new production of Opus demonstrates that he's not forgotten just how far art must go—and how detrimental it can be to orderly business. There are five excellent actors on stage, but this show belongs to Dooley.
Opus, written in 2006 by violist-turned-playwright Michael Hollinger, concerns a world-famous string quartet at a tipping point in its illustrious career. Formed by four friends from conservatory studies—two of whom are lovers—and named for a legendary stringed-instrument maker, the Lazara Quartet has risen to the top of the classical music world. Due to the group's talent and skills—but also because of the collaborative closeness of their little consensus-based society—the quartet has made extraordinary music for many years. But now, as its members prepare for a command performance at the White House, things have fallen apart.
"Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure," said Jane Austen, and so it proves in the very human world of Opus, the drama of which builds as it edges closer and closer to various truths about music and the people who can make it—and the few who can make it great. Ray Dooley is Dorian, the mad poet-philosopher of the quartet, the destabilizing factor, the one who can hear perfection in his mind and doesn't care how many takes it requires to achieve it. In a downstage monologue at the play's beginning, he hints at his protean force, but, like his colleagues, we fail to accord him full respect. Obviously, this guy is not running the show—he's only the violist.
Elliot is first violinist and the animal more equal than others—and Dorian's lover. Scott Ripley, Dooley's fellow PRC member, gives Elliot a relentless, high-octane velocity that initially obscures Dorian's less-focused power, as well as the truths and secrets harbored by second violinist Alan (PRC's Jeffrey Blair Cornell, giving a rather forced performance on opening night), cellist Carl (MFA student Jimmy Kieffer, whose powerful outburst sets up the climax) and Grace (talented Marianne Miller, also an MFA student), the young violist hired to replace Dorian when he goes missing, and who ultimately decides the fate of the quartet.
Under the guidance of guest director Brendon Fox, Opus becomes more than a play about music or performance. Appropriately for the university setting of its presentation, it is about the interpretation of knowledge from the past (music) in the light of the present. But it is also an allegory about living in a society. We spin our containing cocoons, but the hardened chrysalis must be broken for growth to continue. Ray Dooley, tenured professor in the most secure of cocoons, breaks again out of the mold. Unsheathed, electric as Dorian without his lithium, his performance is anything but safe.