AISLE SAY San Francisco


by Michael Hollinger
Directed by Meredith McDonough
Presented by TheatreWorks
Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts
500 Castro St., Mountain View, CA / (650) 903-6000

Reviewed by Judy Richter

Lucky is the ensemble musician who has known a moment when the music and performers become one, transcending themselves and the markings on a sheet of paper. The members of the Lazara Quartet have known such ecstatic moments and constantly strive to achieve them in "Opus," a fascinating 2006 play written by Michael Hollinger and presented by TheatreWorks. In the process, however, they also insert their frailties and foibles, resulting in more than a few fractious moments in rehearsal.

Hollinger weaves their story into a fascinating blend of characters who share one goal but don't always agree on how to achieve it. The plot centers on a crucial period when the string quartet has one week to prepare for a televised performance of Beethoven's challenging Opus 131 at the White House but finds itself in search of a new member. The three original members have fired Dorian (Mark Anderson Phillips), their brilliant but increasingly erratic viola player. They replace him with young Grace (Jennifer Le Blanc), who also is quite gifted without the neurotic behavior.

As the musicians adjust to the new configuration and the group's first female member, Hollinger goes back and forth in time to convey the back story of the original foursome. Each of the performers also steps forward to deliver monologues describing their feelings about playing great music, being in a string quartet and getting along with one another.

Director Meredith McDonough has assembled an excellent ensemble cast. Phillips embodies Dorian's complex personality, and Le Blanc skillfully develops Grace from tentative to more assured and assertive. Richard Frederick is fine as the fussy Elliot, first violinist and Dorian's former lover. Jackson Davis finds low-key humor in Alan, the second violinist whose philandering has cost him his marriage. Kevin Rolston as Carl, the cellist, provides musical and no-nonsense grounding for the group even as he faces the challenges of a family and cancer.

The artistic team facilitates the action of this 100-minute work, performed without intermission. Erik Flatmo's set easily becomes each character's apartment and other rooms with a few switches of artwork and furniture. Lighting by Chris Studley facilitates these changes. Character-defining costumes are by Jill Bowers. Kris Yenney served as quartet advisor, presumably teaching the actors how to look believable as they imitate the motions of real string players. Kudos to sound designer Cliff Caruthers, who coordinates the action with music recorded by the Vertigo String Quartet.

Part of the pleasure of "Opus," in addition to the plot and characters, is the way Hollinger develops them like a musical composition with its varied tempi, dynamics and combinations. Bravo.

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