Sunday, September 19, 2010

MASTER CLASS • Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is kicking off its 8th season with MASTER CLASS, a 1995 Tony Award winning play by Terrence McNally, here under the careful direction of Gary F. Bell.  It was inspired by a series of master classes given at the Juilliard School of Music in the early 70's by Maria Callas, one of the greatest opera singers of the 20th century.

From what I've read, in addition to being a solid operatic actress with great depth of feeling and an impressive vocal range that was instantly recognizable, she was also reportedly a temperamental diva who was at the center of controversy and scandal later in her career.  As a result of her possibly reaching too far too fast, taking on vocally demanding roles, and not having the benefit of early formal training, her career was cut short by the age of around 40 when her voice began to decline.  It's around this time when McNally's fictional account takes place.

As the show begins, with the house lights still up, the accompanist Manny Weinstock (Martin Fox) enters, and gets his sheet music in order.  Then, Maria Callas (a commanding Lavonne Byers) takes the stage, and after addressing the audience, requesting that there be no applause, she asks if she can be heard.  (She doesn't believe in microphones)  "People are forgetting how to listen. If you can't hear me, it's your fault. You're not concentrating."  She then promptly requests water, a cushion for her chair, and a footstool, eventually schlepped onstage by a completely unimpressed stagehand (Jay V. Hall).  After the house lights are dimmed, again at her request, you begin to settle into this captivating portrait, and immediately sense that you're going to get a full dose of prima donna bitchiness, amusing stories, and possibly learn a few things about the art, taught by one of the greatest -- once the toast of La Scala and The Met, now past her prime.

Maria Callas
December 2, 1923 – September 16, 1977
The play is peppered with hilarious digressions from "La Divina", like when she becomes very serious and says she will not have any bad-mouthing of her rivals, but then adds, "How can you have rivals, when no one can do what you do?".  Or insisting that this class is about the students, asking the audience to "Forget I'm here!  I'm invisible", but then taking every opportunity to interrupt their performances to share stories of her own life.  It is within these moments though, when we get glimpses of her past heartbreaks, glories and insecurities.

Her first student is a timid, thin-skinned soprano, Sophie De Palma (Jessica Tilghman).  She only manages to get out one syllable before Callas berates her for not feeling the music or paying close enough attention to the stage direction.  After finally being able to sing a portion of her chosen aria from "La Sonnambula", you hear Maria Callas' own performance fade in, and she slips into a reverie about her difficult childhood as well as her triumphs at La Scala.

Her next student, tenor Tony Candolino (Jon Garrett), is cocky, but eager for advice and guidance.  He just wants to sing.  But "just singing" won't do for Callas.  She's a perfectionist who maintains that having a great voice isn't enough -- she insists that these students must completely inhabit the roles they are playing.  Tony's performance of "Recondita Armonia" from Tosca brings her to tears though, and she admits she had never really listened to the lyrics before.

Lastly we have Sharon Graham (Leslie Sikes), a promising soprano whose aria from "Macbeth" sends Callas into thoughts of, among other things, her notorious affair with the ridiculously wealthy shipping tycoon, Aristotle Onassis.  Although Callas thinks this last student has a nice voice, she puts her through the wringer anyway, criticizing her for everything from what she's wearing, to not having a full understanding of the context of the scene.  But Sharon has the balls to go right back at Callas, bitingly telling her that she's basically just a bitter has-been who is jealous of anyone with a better voice who's younger than she is.  At this point your heart goes out to Callas, or at least mine did, because by this time you realize that as harsh and demanding as this woman might be, she is much more sensitive than her personality would have you think -- a sensitivity that enables her to connect with the music emotionally, giving it her all -- giving to the point where she has nothing left for herself.

Lavonne Byers (Maria Callas).
Photo: John Lamb
This kind of show requires a real force of nature to be believable in the lead role, and Lavonne Byers is quite up to the task.  In addition to being incredibly funny, displaying every bit of the wit, passion and brashness of a true diva, she shows you great vulnerability in subtle gestures and quiet reflections, getting lost in her own memories.  Although the play is enriched by the supporting cast, this is basically a one woman show, and Byers is THE woman.  At intermission, I asked a couple of other folks if the audience seemed really quiet and kind of unresponsive to them, and one guy admitted, "Well, I kind of feel like I'm one of the students, and I don't want to get in trouble!"  Ha!  Just goes to show you how convincing Byers is in the role.

The cast of "victim" students is also wonderful. They have excellent voices and do a fine job in managing to sing what they are allowed to sing, considering all of Callas' interruptions.  The lighting direction by Tyler Duenow and set design by Jay V. Hall keep you in the moment, and at one point transport you to La Scala Opera House with a beautiful projection during one of Callas' ruminations.

Seriously, go see it!  Lavonne Byers is the bomb.


Written by Terrence McNally
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Ave.
through October 2 | tickets: $18 - $20
Performances Thursday to Saturday at 8pm

Lavonne Byers (Maria Callas), Jessica Tilghman (Sophie), Leslie Sikes (Sharon), Jon Garrett (Tony), Martin Fox (Manny Weinstock) and Jay V. Hall (Stagehand).

Costumes by Gary F. Bell; set design by Jay V. Hall; lighting by Tyler Duenow; sound design by Justin Been.

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