A class not mastered


Opera is nothing if not high melodrama. So when Terrence McNally folds his love of opera into his skill as a playwright, the lack of melodrama in the final product is a blessing indeed. His play about a group of gay men and their all-consuming obsession with opera, The Lisbon Traviata, was an adroit black comedy. His later brainchild about Maria Callas, Master Class, fictionalizes a teaching exercise at Juilliard in 1972, where Callas taught up-and-comers the key to raising opera to its visceral heights. It’s a riveting play in the right hands, which are not to be found in Missouri Repertory Theatre’s current production.

The theater community was abuzz about the return of actor Angela Iannone, who came to Kansas City to play Callas. Iannone worked here (as Angela Yannon) in the 1980s, snagging a number of leading roles in plays as disparate as Cole Porter’s frothy Anything Goes and the postnuclear AIDS drama Beirut. She has of late performed Master Class across the country, but, judging by one recent performance, she has not mastered this class. The best that can be said is that she knows the part quite well without it really knowing her.

In the dramatic, tuneless arias McNally has written for the Callas character, in which she recalls her own humiliation under Aristotle Onassis’s thumb (including a degrading demand that she sing a ditty about a whore who takes on five men at once), Iannone shows her potential. But you never see Callas the legend, only a woman who, like so many others, is tethered to a monster.

The biggest barrier to getting lost in this production is Iannone’s failure to find one consistent voice. Particularly troubling are the play’s first 45 minutes, in which her accent jumps from a sharp New York inflection to a slight Mediterranean cadence to a Midwestern drawl as flat as a prairie. It sometimes happens within the confines of a sentence. Where you should be held hostage to McNally’s version of Callas’s eccentricities, you’re left wondering how many directors tried to correct this glaring error of judgment.

In re-creating a series of master classes, it is clear Callas was no Mr. Chips. If students learned anything — and no doubt several did — it was after a series of painful blows to the students’ egos. According to the play, she didn’t see a flaw she wouldn’t trumpet. One female student is dressed like she’s about to call a square dance, while another gets whipped for being overdressed. The sole male student escapes Callas’ wrath, but it says more about her relationship with men than the student’s gifts.

Callas calls for her students by shouting, “Next victim.” The “victims” are played by Lindsey McKee (perhaps a decade too mature for the role), Jane Ohmes, and Joseph Graziano. By the close of the class, two-thirds of the students have Callas’ approval — only because they’ve done exactly what she says. In Callas’ curriculum, a mind of its own is a waste. But the journey doesn’t produce any electricity; these are merely snapshots of what should be a virtual reality tour of Callas’ complex psyche.

Jarrett Bertoncin lights Iannone for her soliloquies with a harsh spotlight that turns the entire theater black except for the actress from the shoulders up. It’s quite effective, as are Tom Mardikes’ blend of actual Callas tapes with the script and Victoria Marshall’s garish dresses for the female students. Linda Ade Brand directed the show and manages to elicit one wonderful performance: that of Gary Neal Johnson as a blasé stage hand who isn’t at all afraid of the diva screaming at him. I know how he feels.

Master Class
through May 28

at Missouri Repertory Theatre

4949 Cherry St.


Categories: A&E