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Gerald Carpenter: Ensemble Theater Company Goes Behind the Music with ‘Opus’

The Michael Hollinger play will run Feb. 3-27 at the Alhecama Theater

The Ensemble Theater Company of Santa Barbara, dark in January, will continue its 2010-11 season with Opus by Michael Hollinger, which opens at the Alhecama Theater, 914 Santa Barbara St., on Thursday and runs through Feb. 27.

Louis Lotorto plays
Louis Lotorto plays “Dorian” in the Ensemble Theater Company’s production of Opus.

Opus, directed by Brian Shnipper, features Louis Lotorto, Douglas Dickerman, Thomas Vincent Kelly, Christine Corpuz and — in the “it’s about time” category — Brian Harwell, who makes his Ensemble debut in this production.

Hollinger’s play, which won the 2006 Barrymore Award for “Outstanding New Play,” chronicles a crisis in the career of a world-renowned string ensemble, the Lazara Quartet. Just as they are scheduled to perform a very high-profile concert at the White House, three of the members find themselves compelled to fire the fourth and hire a new violist.

Dorion, the volatile violist who was fired, had been disrupting rehearsals with increasingly violent arguments with his lover, Elliott, the first violinist, and had, in the opinion of the three other members, inappropriately appropriated Elliott’s instrument — the famous violin that gave the quartet its name. (There happens to be a rather famous living violin maker named Jamie Lazzara, and it seems unlikely that she would be unknown to Hollinger, himself a trained violist, but whether the Lazara/Lazzara echo is deliberate or accidental, I can’t say.)

At any rate, the rump quartet hires a new violist, a young woman named Grace, and struggles to get itself back on track for its White House concert.

The publicity material describes Dorian as “a mix of an emotionally unstable man who needs medication and a musical genius,” but emotional instability and genius are so often found together that they are better described as two parts of a whole rather than a singular “mix.” Musical talent is a frequently troubling gift. In my experience, the greater the musician, the more valiantly he or she strives to appear an “ordinary” person — as if to reveal any other kind of brilliance or distinction would be a kind of hubris. The great majority of novels, plays and films about musicians are studies of ego and creativity, seldom if ever charting the emotional dynamics of an ensemble — or what Michael Arlen describes as a “work family.”

Opus, which does exactly the latter, is a most welcome addition to the literature.

It will play at 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and at 2 p.m. on Sundays, with a matinee at 4 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 12 and a 7 p.m. Sunday evening performance Feb. 20.

Tickets are $30 to $55, depending on the performance date, and are available from the Alhecama box office at 914 Santa Barbara St. or 805.965.5400, or e-mail .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributor. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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