'Master Class' a force to behold Theater review: Playwright Terrence McNally gives a powerful lesson in the craft while Zoe Caldwell soars as legend Maria Callas.


George Bernard Shaw coined the expression: "He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches." And near the end of her life, when her voice failed, legendary soprano Maria Callas exemplified that notion by teaching a series of master classes at Juilliard.

Playwright and Callas devotee Terrence McNally was in the audience at those classes, which form the basis for "Master Class," now at Washington's Kennedy Center prior to Broadway. But this latest script by last season's Tony Award-winning playwright is much more than a fictionalized transcription or a valentine to "La Divina" from an ardent fan. It is that rare example of a play that does what it is about: It not only professes the power of art, it demonstrates it.

McNally wrote "Master Class" for Zoe Caldwell, and much of its power is due to the actress' tour-de-force, Tony-caliber transformation into Callas, under Leonard Foglia's direction. To refer back to Shaw's comment about teaching, Caldwell's performance leaves no doubt that she's an actress who can do.

Whatever criticism Callas may have received for her singing, her talent as an actress -- both on and off stage -- was almost always praised. The key to this talent surfaces early in the show when she tells the first of the three students she coaches, "I hate that word 'act.' No, feel. Be."

Making us believe

As Callas, what Caldwell is is a lion. It's not merely that she's a bully; occasionally she's funny, but mostly, she's fierce. "I don't bite. I bark. I bark quite a bit actually," she says before reducing two of the students to tears.

Granted, she criticizes the appearance of not only her students, but members of the audience; she complains about the theater's temperature and lights; she insists she never says anything against her rivals, then proceeds to do just that.

But we believe Caldwell's Callas when she says if she seems harsh, it's because she's been harsh with herself. Much of this pTC belief stems from flashbacks that McNally inserts, using the students' carefully chosen arias to lead into Callas' memories. The flashbacks may not be subtle, but then, neither is the character.

The most moving example comes when Audra McDonald sings Lady Macbeth's entrance aria from Verdi's "Macbeth." The music leaves Callas shaken, which is probably one reason this is the only time Caldwell does a brief bit of singing. (We hear Callas' landmark recordings in the flashbacks, during which Brian MacDevitt's lighting projections transform set designer Michael McGarty's domed recital hall into the opera house stages of Callas' triumphs.)

In the first flashback, Caldwell relives Callas' passion for Aristotle Onassis, whom she also portrays. In the flashback ushered in by "Macbeth," she shows the lengths Callas went to for Onassis -- giving up not only her career, but their unborn child. "Is there anything you would kill for?" she goads the student singing the part of Lady Macbeth. The terrified and terrorized student -- played with great sympathy and vocal prowess by McDonald -- answers, "I don't think so." Caldwell leaves Callas' own response unspoken but unmistakable.

Callas' gloves-off coaching affects each student differently. McDonald is shattered; lush-voiced tenor Jay Hunter Morris is flattered; perky, giggly Karen Kay Cody emerges teary, though still a bit perky; and stalwart accompanist Stuart Malina comes away largely unscathed.

Beauty, pain, discipline

Callas tries to teach her students that they are part of a "direct line" leading from her to previous artists and all the way back to the people on whom the opera characters are based.

But that's not all that's taught. Playwright McNally displayed his devotion to Callas in his earlier play, "The Lisbon Traviata," titled for one of her pirated recordings. In "Master Class," he displays something deeper: his devotion to art -- its beauty, pain, discipline and the importance of passing the torch. "I am certain that what we do matters," Callas says at the end. That, more than anything, is the lesson of this play.

'Master Class'

Where: Kennedy Center, Washington

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays; matinees at 2:30 p.m. selected Thursdays, Saturdays and most Sundays. Through Oct. 22

Tickets: $25-$53

Call: (800) 444-1324

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