It seems most fitting that the Drama Department of Montgomery College used the words “Proudly Presents” in announcing its fine recent production of Terrence McNally’s unusual and very challenging play, “Master Class.” The play, directed by Ellen Ketchum, and produced by Serena Tripi, depicts “a master class being taught at The Julliard School of Music in New York City, by opera diva Maria Callas.” It comes very close to being a one-woman show, but that would not be fair to the fine performances of the other five members of this talented cast.
We have, for example, the very droll performance of Micah Stinson as the surly Stagehand who endures Callas’ tantrums and lightens the mood from time to time, drifting in and out of the action with a sneer while placing a needed chair here or a pitcher of water there. Then too, we have more amusement from Michael Eric Brown in his humorous characterization of Manny, the accompanist on piano. With cheerful countenance, he provides playful “bits” whether doing warm-up stretches and breathing exercises, or singing secondary roles while accompanying the soloists.
But let us turn now to the singers, though this drama is far from being a musical. First, of course, we have Maria Callas, skillfully portrayed in this production, by Amanda Canfield. Looking glamorous with flawless make-up, elegant hairstyle, sleek dark suit and flowing red scarf, she struts freely on the stage, and fearlessly tackles this very difficult role in which she delivers the vast majority of all the dialogue. When I spoke to the star after the show, she confided that it took two months to memorize her extraordinarily large portion of the script. This critic never noticed her hesitating as she delivered a fierce and solid performance as the tempestuous diva. The last time I saw one woman take over a stage so completely was years ago in the New York production of Lily Tomlin’s “Search For Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe.”
Callas was known not only for her groundbreaking artistry on the opera stages of the world, but also for her romantic entanglements with such notables as Aristotle Onassis. All of this comes into focus during long and revealing solo moments as Callas reflects on her past. She recalls a poor childhood in Greece, when, for lack of proper shoes, she would walk long distances with bleeding feet in order to study music at the Athens Conservatory six days a week. She dabbles in resentments toward competing divas of her day. She broods, remembering how she was ostracized as fat and ugly in her youth. She agonizes over Onassis’ insistence that she abort their child. On a bare stage, Canfield delivers these passages with wrenching desperation and impressive intensity, under the very focused lighting of designer, David Kerr.
In this piece, three Julliard vocal students come under the piercing scrutiny of the diva. The first soprano, Sophie, is nicely played by Marie Ally. Sophie is bewildered by Callas and easily intimidated. Ally brings this across the footlights, but sometimes relies too heavily on pinched facial expressions to develop her character. Performing musical segments from Lady Macbeth, Sara Melvin plays the second soprano, Sharon, with a good variety of emotion. She also gives us a Sharon who is not afraid to challenge the intimidating, and somewhat jealous Callas. Miss Melvin, a second year vocal music major at the college, has in this role the opportunity to display her considerable language fluency, and operatic skill. Her amusingly garish gown was at once gaudy and grim, but in the view of this critic, she has clearly chosen the proper major.
The final student is the tenor, Tony, ably played by handsome Benjamin Mikolaj. Mr. Mikolaj must have a more extensive music background than that indicated in the program, as he sang his operatic passages with commendable skill, passion, and command. Mikolaj also conveys a good sense of comic fun as he fends off admiring flirtations from the diva.
As for Callas, she closes her lecture to the students saying, “I have tried to reach you—To communicate what we do as artists.” I would say this cast has done that very well.
(The Courier 12.1.04)
(The Villager 12.2.04)