Playwright Terrence McNally has penned some wonderful works (“Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune”) and some less than wonderful works (“Lips together, Teeth Apart”). For me “Master Class” is lodged somewhere between those two poles.
It is an unabashedly high-brow work, double wrapped in an imposing gravitas, and, therefore, it seemed all but preordained back in 1996 when it was bestowed with both the Drama Desk Award and the Tony as the outstanding play of that year. The awarding of the best actress Tony to Zoe Caldwell also seemed inevitable especially to those holding season tickets to the Metropolitan Opera. After all it was Callas!
The play draws its narrative arena from the “Master Classes” Callas (Gigi Bermingham) conducted at Julliard in 1971. From this pulpit of Terpsikhore, Callas expounds on the mystery of artistic excellence as various students (Tyler Milliron, Danielle Skalsky and the formidable Jennifer Shelton) pass before her as sacrificial offerings to the god of creativity. What emerges, however, is that for any who looks upon the holiest of holies, the heart that must be cut out on the altar of art is their own.
The International City Theatre has never failed, as far as I’m concerned, in staging for their audiences exceptionally crafted shows, and with “Master Class” they do so again.
Bermingham is a more “user-friendly” Callas than is the trend, yet succeeds in filling the stage with her passion and her pain while extending her dominance over all the proceedings, as would a diva, simply by her presence.
Skalsky (as the “first soprano”) strikes the precise pose of a “deer” caught in the headlights of genius as she repeatedly attempts to get passed the third note in the piece she struggles to perform for Callas. Next in her trinity of students, Milliron (as the “tenor”) prances the stage in a perfect peacock pacing. Shelton (as the “second soprano”) boasts a noteworthy set of pipes, and skillfully communicates the fortitude required to survive being in the presence of genius.
Jeremy Mascia as the long suffering stagehand and James Lent as Callas’ accompanist add their substantial talents to the ensemble albeit in roles that demand less of that talent than they are clearly able to give.
Todd Nielsen demonstrates a firm hand at the helm as director and delivers a polished staging with a shine that manages to blind the audience to the weakness of the show itself.
While a lean and entertaining work, it skims over Callas’ return to Athens in 1937, her family’s struggles during the Axis occupation of Greece in which she was pressed by her mother into something approaching prostitution so that they could survive. Her dramatic weight loss in the 1950’s, provoking rumors that she had swallowed a tapeworm to achieve it, and which may have weakened her voice, leading to the essential end of her career at the age of 40. It’s all brushed aside in order to bring to the forefront her doomed relationship with shipping magnate and world class jerk-wad Aristotle Onassis. (Sorry, but anyone who uses whale penises for bar stools is a world class jerk-wad in my book.)
In the end though, thanks to a talented cast and consummate director, the play is far stronger in the staging than the piece is in the writing. And after all it is Callas!