At the back of the stage, the double-doors swing wide open, and in walks legendary opera soprano Maria Callas, purse in hand, and scarf around her neck. She strides grandiosely to the stage apron, where she is greeted with an echoing applause. She shakes her head, waves her hand and gestures for us to stop - We should never applaud throughout the master class session she is about to teach. Remember - this is a classroom, not a theatre.
And as Elizabeth Ashley (in Maria Callas mode) continues her monologue, we can't help but believe that we are at one of Callas' 23 bi-weekly master class sessions at Juilliard, which she taught from 1971 to 1972. It is only until Ms. Ashley reaches the first flashback soliloquy of Callas that we remind ourselves that we are not sitting in a Juilliard lecture hall in 1972, nor are we in the presence of the great opera soprano, who has been long gone for over 20 years now. To set the scene straight, we are sitting in the Royal Alexandra Theatre on a warm Saturday afternoon in April of 1999. We are not watching a master class - we are watching the 1996 Tony Award-winning Best Play, Master Class, by Terrence McNally.
McNally (for those of you who still haven't heard of one of America's greatest playwrights) is best known for writing the books for the Tony Award-winning musicals, Kiss of the Spider Woman and Ragtime - the two original musicals initiated by the currently near-bankrupt Livent. He won Tonys for both those shows, as well as another Tony for his play Love! Valour! Compassion!. His other credits are relatively unknown to the average theatregoer. But to the avid, he is a playwright in his prime. And Master Class (a play I have been looking forward to ever since it opened on Broadway in 1995) is one of his works that shows off the level of theatrical excellence he is presently at - and it proves so with a great deal of humour and emotion.
In the non-singing role of opera's most controversial figure, Elizabeth Ashley stretches her acting chops to the max, and magnificently handles the role of Maria Callas with vigour and excess, oozing with raspy charm - perfect for the notorious egomaniac that Callas was. Watch as Ms. Ashley clutches her fist, slams it on the desk, and bats her eyes. Or when she dives into Callas' flashbacks, grasping the audience in the palm of her hand, gradually gripping us tighter and tighter until she reaches the emotional climax of the monologue ... then she releases, allowing us to breathe, absorb and understand Callas - and to sympathize with her.
But we have a harder time finding sympathy with Callas' students - or "victims," as she calls them - who put up with the insults hurled at them, whether it be on their looks or their persona. We're supposed to be on their side, but the supporting actors' inadequate acting skills create almost an imbalance in the quality of the production. More often, we enjoy laughing at them - whether it be at Sophie's (Frances Limoncelli) plump figure and overly jovial appearance, or at Sharon (Melissa LaFrance) for overdressing for the occasion.
The insults continue for the rest of the play, excellently displaying Callas' egotistical manner, as well as explaining as to why she acted in such a way. And McNally makes sure that we don't leave the theatre without seeing the other side of the diva, and doesn't forget to show Callas' gentler, kinder side.
To say Master Class is a biography of the legendary diva would be incorrect. If anything, it feels more like a character study and an opera thesis (on why opera is great) combined, greatly reflecting Mr. McNally's interest and knowledge on opera. And in this compelling play, McNally successfully gets his point across about opera, and allows the audience to get swept up and embrace in the passion of Callas' artform, as well as the emotion that Callas anguishes in. And it is in these rare absorbing moments in a theatrical performance that the avid theatregoer relishes in - those of pure theatrical bliss. And rest assured, those are abundant in Master Class.
Master Class by Terrence McNally, starring Elizabeth Ashley. Now through May 1, 1999 at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, Toronto. Tickets: (416) 872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333, $26.50 to $76.70.