Opus -- Theater Review

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Michael Hollinger's play about a fictional classical music string quartet (2 violins, 1 viola, 1 cello) revolves around death and a confrontation with Beethoven.

Making its Los Angeles premiere, "Opus" is anything but funny -- or even optimistic. We see the Lazara Quartet in its behind-the-scenes world of endless work and anxiety, where emotional order is nearly impossible, and drugs are indispensable for many to live.

The writer has well translated the intensely internal issues onto the stage, with a knack for creating authentic context without bothering the audience with too many details.

Although trained as a violist, Hollinger delivers what he must have experienced countless times into dialogue that sounds more convincing when talking about personal rather than musical things. It feels like caution rather than compromise.

Deadly cancers dominate the play. The first violinist and the violist are locked in a mortal death grip of love and envy. The cellist is fearing the end of a long remission. The quartet even has its own cancer: It ha been on a downhill artistic slide since it canceled a recording of Beethoven's "Quartet Opus 131."

The acting, like most string quartets, exceeds the sum of its parts. There is real teamwork, whether as characters in the play or just actors on a stage doing battle and interacting with one another. The cast employs a large vocabulary of cartoonish movements and gestures when they mime playing their instruments. It's a perfect contrast, symbolically and dramatically, when the actor playing new violist, an energetic charmer named Jia Doughman, was trained as a violinist.

Cooper Thornton as the second violin increasingly dominates the play with his resigned sense of humor, bringing a Jason Robards Jr. sense of pathos to his work along with a split-second sense of timing. Gregory G. Giles gets bad news and delivers it as only a cellist with his feet firmly on the ground could do.

Between them, Christian Lebano as the controlling first violinist and Daniel Blinkoff as his ephemeral lover and rival capture the stilted, awkward rituals classical music relationships must go through in their final stages, like black holes of mortality.

The set is cleverly designed to provide the labyrinth through which all touring ensembles must continually travel.

The Fountain Theater will present two live concerts by Los Angeles-based string quartets on June 27 and July 11.

Venue: Fountain Theater, Los Angeles (Through July 25)
Cast: Daniel Blinkoff, Jia Doughman, Gregory G. Giles, Christian Lebano, Cooper Thornton
Playwright: Michael Hollinger
Director: Simon Levy
Set designer: Frederica Nascimento
Lighting designer: Ken Booth
Costume designer: A. Jeffrey Schoenberg
Sound designer: Peter Bayne
Producers: Stephen Sachs, Deborah Lawlor
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