a kate west review
Terrence McNally, directed by Simon Levy
Fountain Theatre production at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 Sepulveda,
Extended through July 25, 2004! Tix (323) 663-1525; www.fountaintheatre.com
in the footsteps of a career-defining role such as Maria Class
in "Master Class" is no easy task. Zoe Caldwell is well-known
for brilliantly defining that part on Broadway and Faye Dunaway
attempted the same in a recent Los Angeles production. Now the
Fountain Theatre's new production of "Master Class"
provides the answer to the question, 'can an actress make the
role her own and still capture the essence of Callas?' The answer
is a resounding YES. Karen Kondazian's recent interpretation is
magnificent. She artfully plays the maestra, exposing Callas'
raw complexities, simultaneously making her sympathetic and terrifying.
play begins with the house lights up and Callas (Kondazian) striding
in after her accompanist (Bill Newlin). She acknowledges the audience
as her "students" in one of her famous 1970's master
classes at Julliard in New York. She lectures us on how to behave
and playfully picks out members of the audience, completing the
illusion that she is indeed Callas, "la divina" resurrected.
Thus we dare not make a sound, lest we anger the great one. Her
students ("victims," she calls them) come in one by
one, never good enough and woefully unprepared for her attack.
This particular evening the first Soprano, Sophie, is shyly portrayed
by the alternate, Stephanie Reese. Barely getting out the first
note, Callas rips into the poor girl, ruthlessly bullying her
into feeling some real emotion. After these brutal onslaughts,
Sophie's final tearful attempt is significantly better than her
first and one begins to see why Callas was considered possibly
the greatest vocal artist of her century (1923-1977).
fascinating aspect of the production is that Callas is occasionally
lost in reverie and the student fades out while we hear the actual
Callas recordings of the same roles. During these flashbacks,
we glimpse the torture and agony of being Callas, from her insecurity
and paranoia, thinking everyone was talking behind her back and
ridiculing her looks, to her tumultuous relationship with millionaire
Aristotle Onassis. She was a real, vibrant, passionate, jealous
and endlessly fascinating human being. Kondazian effortlessly
jumps between the younger and older Callas, creating a fully realized,
dimensional and superb characterization and homage.
next two students challenge her authority. Clifton Hall saunters
in as the Tenor, determined to get by on his good looks alone
(and indeed Hall is pretty dreamy). Callas gives him a few notes
and then sends him on his way. The final student, Alternate Sierra
Rein, the second Soprano, imperious and proud, is the ultimate
challenger, declaring her dislike for Callas and throwing all
Callas' doubts in her face. Absurdly over-dressed in a ball gown
(credit Costumer Designer Naila Aladdin-Sanders), she is hurt
by Callas' relentless digs and lashes out. At this point, we feel
deeply for Callas as she slips into another reverie, exposing
the ultimate pain of her life and her current loneliness. Fighting
with everyone around her, from her surly stagehand (Scott Tuomey)
to her three students, Callas comes across as feisty and full
of pride herself, yet missing something vital at the end. It is
not easy being great.
Designer Mark Rosenthal and Sound Designer John Zalewski support
the reminisces with slide projections of the real Callas, Director
Simon Levy sensitively puts Kondazian through her paces and Set
Designer Desma Murphy creates a precise atmosphere with a bare
stage, a piano and a table and chair for Callas just as it must
have been during the actual master classes. All three students
are fine singers as well, giving the audience the added bonus
of listening to good musical performances (selections were from
Bellini, Puccini and Verdi). The overall production is an intriguing
depiction of Cecilia Sofia Anna Maria Kalogeropoulos, the New
York born Greek diva who so tragically lost her voice early on.
Playwright Terrence McNally should be honored to have his well-known
play so lovingly depicted. An excellent production, one comes
away with the burning desire to read a biography on Callas and
of course to attend an opera as soon as possible.