Plano — The moniker “master class” means nothing without the name of the master who will teach it. It exists outside of any curriculum or degree plan. It is simply a chance to get close to someone who has achieved something in his or her discipline. And it goes further with Master Class by Terrence McNally. That this is a play about a class taught by aging opera legend Maria Callas still leaves the more important details to be filled in. This production by Brick Road Theatre is directed by Terry Martin, previously of Water Tower Theatre, and most importantly the main role is played by Diana Sheehan.
Only now can you imagine what kind of show it will be.
That’s central to the thesis of the piece: the power of the performer eclipses the power of the piece. Callas became a titan of the opera world. This evening dramatizes some classes she gave at Julliard after she had disappeared from performing for 10n years. While she chats with the students (the audience) and coaches the singers and belittles the stagehand (Tyler Cochran), she tells of how she overcame obstacles like her weight and war and poverty. Her inference is that the piece on the page isn’t enough. The performer must bravely bare themselves in order to transform the ordinary. While this is true of any narcissist trying to unpack their success, it’s particularly true of this play.
Sheehan leans on an imperious charm to establish Callas’ relationship with the audience. Every time Callas crosses a line, she looks to us for backup. When she doesn’t recognize the pianist, Manny, played with sycophantic admiration by Bruce Greer, she can be forgiven, right? He doesn’t have a look; everyone should have a look, right? Callas doesn’t mention her failing eyesight. She doesn’t want to show us any of her other failings either. While that’s understandable for the character, it’s dangerous for the actress. By the time the first student, Sophie (Nancy Lopez) comes in, the audience’s affection is wearing thin, because it isn’t supported by much sympathy. The desperation driving the behavior—Callas’ need to be Callas—is missing.
The sympathy balance is further imperiled by Lopez’s dormouse demeanor. At first, director Martin capitalizes on the powerful opera diva interrupting the burgeoning student for some comedic turns, but then we actually hear her beautiful voice. Now it’s hard justify Callas’ showboating teaching indulgences. Playwright McNally begins here to lay the groundwork of autobiographical passages being evoked by the pieces that the students bring. By the time, Tony, the tenor (William Whitmire), shows up, we are prepared for Callas to be entirely transported. We aren’t prepared for his voice. Whitmire’s jocular Tony doesn’t seem like a vessel that would contain such refined vibration, but out it comes and we’re as transfixed as Callas is plainly aroused.
This moment is worth the price of admission.
To sweeten the deal, Danielle Estes plays the third student, Sharon. A blonde, dressed in jewels wearing a show-stopping gown courtesy of John Ahrens, she should be the embodiment of everything that Callas is not. A perfect rival. Her coaching results in the furthest flight into phantasm of the evening for Callas, but her dark, personal stories are overshadowed by Estes pristine voice. It’s really disproportionate warfare. Sheehan has to create multiple characters in dramatic side light courtesy of designer Susan A. White. She’s trying to create the tangled mess of a whole life experience while Estes is displaying a highly engineered and tightly honed slice. The latter can’t even flirt with failure and the former fails without it.
In the end, Callas comes off as an example of the ravages of the art. Like a veteran on a war bond tour, she’s what’s left after the war. That explains why her performances are played with that thin, scratchy sound. They’re the battles recorded on foreign soil. In her final moments, she makes a case for the art regardless. Not that our survival depends on it, but that it makes our survival better.
Won’t you support the troupes?