It’s not unusual for a TimeLine production to take over every spare moment of your next day – compelling you to steal time to Internet surf more on the historical topic of their play, or make a trip to the library. Not so with MASTER CLASS. Here instead, the next morning there is a greater deep thirst to find every recording of Maria Callas’ voice—to look for clues of when she began to lose it, to re-hear the morsels that spice MASTER CLASS, and to linger and bathe in Callas’ soprano grandeur, as is its due.
The transport to Maria Callas’ world begins as soon as you enter the theater space at Stage 773, to see the S-shaped sides of a thrust stage with a perfect seeming maple floor and a grand piano in the back (Set Design: Arnel Sancianco). Chicagoans may be thinking Ravinia’s Steans Music Institute and perhaps a Rising Stars performance. New Yorkers might be thinking Juilliard, which is where we are supposed to be in 1971.
A studiedly unassuming pianist takes a seat at the piano to wait with us for the action to begin (Stephen Boyer, Assistant Music Director, as Manny,). And then she enters—the diva Maria Callas, played by TimeLine company member Janet Ulrich Brooks—whose posture and stride conveys diva power in a millisecond instant, demanding our attention as only a world-class opera diva can.
Callas will soon explain to us that this take-up-the-whole-room presence is part of her craft, and perhaps something she will teach to these opera star wannabees who are her “victims”, or students come to learn from the legend.
We too are in this Master Class as students and observers. Playwright Terence McNally has Callas make her big entrance—— as we soon learn she is never one for small ones‑—and immediately starts kibbutzing with us about this Master Class exercise—complaining of the lights, wanting a better seat cushion, and cracking the door open into her inner world. In this writer’s view, it’s a make or break moment in the script, that Ulrich Brooks and director Nick Bowling finesse.
There are many reasons to change your schedule to make sure you see TimeLine’s production of Master Class, in this writer's view, but first of first reasons is the tour de force performance by Ulrich Brooks, who becomes this diva.. Imperious and haughty, she is the survivor of a difficult childhood, hard times in war-torn Europe, and most of all, driven. Through her recollections of Ulrich Brooks re-enacting his words, we also meet her coarse paramour, Aristotle Onassis, who apparently liked to wield power over her, his personal “canary”. As her persona is peeled away, we also see at her core a true love of art and her passions for the opera she performs.
TimeLine Theater Company and McNally Teach Us About Opera
Many of us will find the Master Class script instructive in one or other aspect of voice training and use. Callas via McNally’s pen really does have a lot to teach. Mostly though, it’s how Callas deals with anyone who threatens to de-throne her as #1—even if she is admiring of their talent and art-- that is the grist of the Master Class plot. In sequence, we see Callas giving feedback—a word she hates—to a soprano, tenor and a second soprano. Her advice is quick, much like a knife in the back or hit-below-the-kneecap. The more talent you have, the quicker this knife is drawn and the deeper its thrust. More than anything, she seems to want her students to know that compared to her they are sadly mediocre.
But, by this writer’s lights, what we see – and hear!‑ are talents that make you eager to re-read the program notes to try to discern if they are Lyric regulars. The first soprano, Sophie, played by Molly Hernández, barely gets a note out but utterly charms us as Callas’ unworldly foil. Tony the tenor (Eric Anthony Lopez) seems to send pheromone projectiles throughout the hall, letting us feel his will to overcome his fears in order to impress the diva. OMG!, this writer thought as he sang—he’s great! And then, the voice of second soprano Keirsten Hodgens simply knocks it out of the ballpark, while at the same time her acting distills a superiority of being human, rather than diva.
Fans of the Metropolitan Opera movie The Audition that so aptly captures the drive and vulnerability of would-be opera greats might feel a sense of déja vu. Opera lovers—and especially those who have taken the Lyric’s backstage tour and learned of Callas’ historic role in Chicago opera history—will likely find Master Class totally engaging, as will fans of biographies brought to life on the stage.
Bravo Director Nick Bowling and Music Director Doug Peck—BRAVO!!!
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
Playwright: Terrence McNally
Director: Nick Bowling
Music Director: Doug Peck
Janet Ulrich Brooks, Eric Anthony Lopez, Molly Hernandez, Keirsten Hodgens, Stephen Boyer, Raymond Hutchison.
Arnel Sancianco, Sally Dolembo, Jessica Neill , Andrew Hansen, Katie Cordts , Vivian Knouse, Eva Breneman, Lucas Garcia, Maren Robinson, Alka Nayyar, Miranda Anderson
Thru December 9
Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. (except no performance on Thanksgiving, November 22)
Fridays at 8 p.m.
Saturdays at 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. (except no performance October 27 at 4 p.m
Sundays at 2 p.m.
There is an added 4 p.m. performance on Friday, November 23.
1225 W. Belmont Avenue
For tickets and information, visit the Timeline Theatre website or call the Stage 773 Box Office at (773) 327-5252.
Photos: First slider - Lara Goetsch and second slider - Joe Mazza, individual photos as credited
Note: Picture This Post reviews are excerpted by Theatre in Chicago
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