In the first of many examples of Broome channeling her character, she strides onto the well-lit stage and immediately captures the audience with her gaze, her posture, and a magnetic pull. As Callas instructs one of the sopranos in her class, "An artist enters and is," and Broome's entrance illustrates the impact of that action in no uncertain terms. In that moment, we are transformed from opening night theatre patrons into an auditorium full of starry-eyed Juilliard School students who have come to observe La Divina's vocal master class.
Terrence McNally's 1996 Tony Award-winning play uses the device of Callas teaching young artists some years after her stellar career. Despite her pronouncement that the class is not about her, it is really all about her, and the three aspirants who are her "victims" must contend with her self-interest as they put themselves under the glare of her spotlight. Erica Spyres (Sophie), Lindsay Conrad (Sharon) and Darren T. Anderson (Tony), all possessing outstanding vocal instruments, play the two sopranos and a tenor who want only to sing for Callas, but learn how much more sheand the careers they hope forrequires of them.
Callas frequently reverts to her own performances as they assay the arias she made famous, getting lost in the triumph or pain of those long ago occasions. When her reverie includes a conversation with her infamous lover Aristotle Onassis, Broome assumes his character with the slightest change of posture and accent, seamlessly slipping back and forth between his gruffness and the singer's classy sophistication. Broome is mesmerizing as she makes us feel his arrogance and the powerful control he wields, as well as the need and powerlessness it creates in Callas.
By contrast, Callas has the power and control on the stage and plies it differently with each of the other players. Although she is clearly in charge, she views the pianist Manny (virtuosic Brendon Shapiro) as a collaborator, even as she is dismissive about his attire and expects a certain amount of deference from him. She has no regard for the apathetic Stagehand (Michael Caminiti) who displeases her at every turn. She attempts to recruit the audience as her confederates in her disdain for him, but he is unfazed. However, the three students bear the brunt of the diva's power as she brandishes it like a weapon to intimidate them into reflecting her glory back at her.
Director Antonio Ocampo-Guzman claims a fascination with the story of Callas, the woman, as much as her artistic story, and his experience as an immigrant informs his ability to connect with the disappointments and tragedy of her life. As he proved in his astute, IRNE-nominated turn at the helm of New Rep's Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune a couple of years ago, Ocampo-Guzman understands the rhythms of McNally's writing and has a feel for his characters' inner lives. The director draws nuanced performances from the ensemble, communicating as much if not more from the musical interludes and silences as from the spoken words. The contributions of Lighting Designer Chris Brusberg and Sound Designer David Reiffel cannot be overstated, conjuring up Maria's reveries by lighting changes, the sounds of her original recordings, and distant applause.
Scenic Designer John Traub gives us a set with minimal decoration, adhering to the instructor's all-business tone. There is the grand piano on a blond hardwood floor, a contemporary high-backed chair adjacent to a black metal cart, and a pair of ceramic planters flanking the stage. A row of wide, vertical white panels in lieu of a backdrop appears to serve an acoustic purpose, but secrets another function that I won't reveal. Costume Designer Stacey Stevens dresses Callas in flattering, trim black slacks and a black jersey, accessorized with a link belt, silk scarf and hefty handbag. The outfits for the other characters evoke the fashions of the 1970s, and Stevens outdoes himself with Sharon's inappropriate gown.
McNally pays homage to the unique talents of Maria Callas in Master Class even as he demonstrates her unattractive traits that contributed to her notoriety. While her antics do not evoke much sympathy on the page, Broome inhabits her so fully as to bring forth moments of warmth and palpable human connection, showing that Callas actually is a sympathetic character. After erecting walls for her own protection, she is unable to let go of the past and becomes its prisoner. Broome dons that cloak of vulnerability to make her closing speech, and manages to exit with head held high, taking all of the air in the room with her.
Master Class performances through April 21, 2013, at New Repertory Theatre, Arsenal Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal Street, Watertown, MA; Box Office 617-923-8487 or www.newrep.org. Written by Terrence McNally, Directed by Antonio Ocampo-Guzman; John Traub, Scenic Designer; Stacey Stevens, Costume Designer; Chris Brusberg, Lighting Designer; David Reiffel, Sound Designer; Phill Madore, Production Stage Manager
Cast (in alphabetical order): Darren T. Anderson, Amelia Broome, Michael Caminiti, Lindsay Conrad, Brendon Shapiro, Erica Spyres