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Opus: Once More, With Feeling

The art and tyranny of togetherness
PHOTO BY ED KRIEGER

Just how do members of a theater ensemble overcome personal and artistic differences in order to create a work of beauty? The question arose a few weeks ago at a local meeting of the Network of Ensemble Theaters.

In most instances, an ensemble is led by an authority figure who is responsible for shaping the contributions of individuals into some kind of cogent unity. That person is usually a director but sometimes is a playwright or a director-playwright team.

But the process is perilous. Some ensembles give credit to the entire company for devising a piece whose sum consists of parts introduced by various actors, designers or choreographers. Other ensembles credit only the director or playwright. This gets particularly prickly if the work becomes financially lucrative, or even if the idea draws a grant that keeps the company fiscally solvent for a season or two.

Also at work in ensembles are interpersonal dynamics that can rival if not trump issues of authorship and credit — romantic attractions, envy and the comfort level with one's status in a group.

Finally comes the question of how creative decisions are made. Elizabeth LeCompte, director of the Wooster Group, described how the ensemble worked together in her adaptation of the Francesco Cavalli 1641 opera La Didone, which included trained opera singers. LeCompte said the process was "organic."

Having never wanted to be a performer herself, she said she simply observed and selected offerings served up by the ensemble and the musical adapter; there was no need for argument or even much discussion, because what was right for the production was understood by the company, which had been together for decades. That's what ensemble means. The opera singers, comparative outsiders, supported LeCompte's view by admitting they simply couldn't understand the unspoken language employed by the regular Wooster Group ensemble, that it was a mystery to them.

Assuming they were telling the truth, this is an idyllic representation of ensemble, and of the capacity of a group to unite through an accrued, private language in the interests of something larger than each of them.

Less artsy examples are a chorus line, a marching or military parade, playing and moving in unison. But the darkest sides of ensemble are neither creative nor benign. Fascism, too, is the surrender of the individual to the larger purpose.

An ensemble is a kind of government, and the negotiations within an ensemble between individual rights and collective needs can be found in the various models of government, including the gaping contradictions between a mission statement and actual behavior, or between a constitution and actual policy.

Michael Hollinger's 2006 Opus studies the interpersonal dynamics of a contemporary string quartet. The mimed image and sounds of the group rehearsing the "Adagio" movement from Bach's Concerto for Two Violins may be drivel for hard-boiled musicologists seeking dissonant sounds that match our century, but for those with more baroque inclinations, which teeter into the romantic, the give-and-take between the two lead violins is a love duet. One establishes a motif, the other chases and then embellishes upon it, until the first is echoing. This is the sight and sound of unfettered passion twisting itself into harmony, of the best that civilization can inspire. One can't even imagine the horrors unfolding in Bach's Europe while he was composing this bliss.

The play, directed by Simon Levy, is now in an extended run at Hollywood's Fountain Theatre.

Were the drama really a study of such harmony, it wouldn't be a drama at all. It is, in fact, the study of five individuals (one who leaves near play's start, and returns near play's end) struggling through romantic attraction, professional jealousy and ambition and, in one instance, the threat of a terminal disease, in a communal form of government, in order to accomplish as much as their group is capable of.

One premise is that the quartet has been invited to perform at the White House. This drains the quagmire of an idiosyncratic and merely eccentric story to place the eyes of the world upon this government of four, who vote their way through which selections to perform, and across the divides of interpretation that crop up.

There's a quotation attributed to Benjamin Franklin: "Participatory democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch." Whether Franklin actually said this, the adage plays itself out in Hollinger's story through an intricate balance of tempers and temperaments.

Near the start, the play reveals an "issue" with violist Dorian (Daniel Blinkoff), which caused him to leave, reducing the quartet to three. The play opens with an audition for his seat, soon filled somewhat reluctantly by Grace (Jia Doughman). She's waiting to hear back from the more prestigious Pittsburgh Symphony, but finally chooses the quartet, largely as a career move — for the attention and opportunity being in the smaller group will give her. Doughman plays her with an irresistible sweetness that's almost callow. In fact, she's anything but naive, though she does a convincing job portraying herself as such. She's merely polite, very polite, self-deprecatingly polite, swimming in a riptide alongside sharks. But don't mistake her civility for stupidity.

The self-proclaimed leader is first violinist Elliot (Christian Lebano), a good musician but not a great one. On some level, he's aware of his limitations, which explains his childish petulance with the others for an interpretation he finds vulgar, when, in fact, the fault may be his. He clutches his role as lead violinist to his heart. It's all he has. This is partly why Dorian left. We see flashbacks in which it becomes apparent that Dorian was the superior musician and musicologist, deprived of an opportunity to soar by the tyrant, Elliot. We see all this in Lebano's streaks of haughtiness as Elliot, and in the twitches of Blinkoff's slightly unhinged, fastidious and transparently brilliant Dorian. And this is the kind of subtextual layering within the ensemble that makes Hollinger's play so appealing. They speak either in professional jargon or through sarcasm, but they never speak about the dynamics within the ensemble. Rather, they reveal it.

The tensions exacerbated by Elliot are mediated somewhat by cellist Carl, in a very wry performance by Gergory G. Giles. Then there's the second violinist, a gentle widower named Alan (Cooper Thornton), who finds himself romantically drawn to young Grace — a messy encumbrance in an ensemble.

"Did I tell you you look wonderful tonight?" Alan asks her before one of their appearances.

"No, and you're not going to," Carl snaps back before Grace can answer, enforcing the local zoning code for acceptable behavior.

What happens at play's end, after the White House appearance, could be Shakespearean, were it the story of a king rather than a little-known string quartet. But it's all there: The personal intrigue, democracy, hypocrisy and tyranny walking arm-in-arm. Sometimes in four or five people, you can see the whole world. And that Hollinger has pulled all that off in a somewhat minor key is no minor accomplishment.

Then again, he's been well served by the ensemble, and the director, not to mention music advisers Roy Tanabe and Larry Sonderling.

Frédéric Nascimento's set has a quasi-expressionistic backdrop, which captures the rich veneer of the instruments themselves, and Peter Bayne's crucial sound design is impeccable.

OPUS | By MICHAEL HOLLINGER | Presented by the FOUNTAIN THEATRE, 5060 Fountain Ave., L.A. | Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through Aug. 29 | (323) 663-1525

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