IF YOU GO
What: Play about the life of opera diva Maria Callas
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday - Saturday, April 21; 3 p.m. matinée showings on Saturdays & Sundays.
Where: Daniels Pavilion at the Naples Philharmonic Center for the Arts, 5833 Pelican Bay Boulevard, Naples
Information: 866-811-4111 or gulfshoreplayhouse.org
On the Web: More theater news at The Stage Door blog
5833 Pelican Bay Boulevard, Naples, FL
"Master Class," Terrence McNally's play about the life of opera diva Maria Callas, seems tailor-made to continue the partnership between Gulfshore Playhouse and the Naples Philharmonic. Produced by Gulfshore, performed in the Daniels Pavilion, the show combines a larger-than-life character, smart writing, lush music and operatic arias.
Set in a classroom at Juilliard, "Master Class" uses the life of Callas to examine the notion of sacrifice for the sake of art. The singer, who was credited with bringing a more naturalistic style to opera, teaches (or tries to) a series of students that they must give everything they have to a role. For Callas, it wasn't enough to just regurgitate the notes in order to create a vivid performance, singers must let the audience feel the emotion the composer felt.
In hindsight, "Master Class" may have been the wrong project for Gulfshore to tackle in their Philharmonic debut. Director Kristen Coury, so good at thoughtful, nuanced plays and the giddy, literate fun of "Earnest," feels unable to juggle the show's complex blend of drama, quirky humor and music while coping with the creative and technical demands of an entirely new space.
Coury doesn't want an icy, brittle Callas, steering veteran actress Marina Re clear of frigid, emotionless portrayals. She wants the show to illustrate the fiery passion that Callas had - for her life and for her work - without making the character a tantrum-throwing cliche.
I see where Coury was going. She finds the character - and the passion for life - inside the playwright's words. Her vision of Callas is a real person, a wounded warrior forced off the battlefield, trying to prepare ignorant children for the war that is opera. Re, who started work on the role more than six months ago, plays Callas as a grizzled veteran. There's an iron fist underneath the velvet opera glove and steel in her quiet voice.
It's a contemplative, introspective approach that just doesn't pan out. Coury, used to working in the intimate confines of the cozy Norris Center stage, makes the play - and Callas - feel small and ordinary. Re never ignites in a show where she must create an incandescent persona that illuminating the entire auditorium. "Master Class" needs a DIVA - not a diva's introspection.
Coury's meticulous style, built around an exacting precision that choreographs the slightest movements on stage, runs counter to the hot-blooded passion of Callas. As much as the characters talk about passion, the show fights to conjure any trace of it. Re whips back and forth with at a frantic pace, jabbing one-liners, starting and finishing conversations and demanding (scripted) technical changes, but to no avail. She's never a big enough personality to embody the larger-than-life Callas.
The actress delivers where her experience is strongest - the show's humor and the longer monologues. Two major scenes punctuate "Master Class." As students prepare to sing, arias from the real Maria Callas begin to play. Re begins long speeches, her "spoken arias," the words timed exactly to gaps in the Callas music.
Here, in the show's best moments, backed by a voice that could move the heavens, Re grabs the crowd and takes them inside the life of Callas. In these scenes, "Master Class" drives home what it is to love something, to adore the art of creation to strongly, so passionately, that it destroys everything else in your life - as it did Callas - her lovers, her voice, her child.
Glenn Seven Allen gets laughs as over-eager tenor student Tony. He delivers Cavaradossi's aria from the first act of "Tosca" and holds his own against Re's barking Callas. Leah Edwards and Christine Cornell play a pair of emotionally fragile sopranos. Some of Coury's signature directing touches show in Re's playful banter with pianist Manny (an adorably goofy Charles Czarnecki).
Gulfshore Playhouse intern Michael Turczyinski bids fair to steal the night as a taciturn stagehand who spars with Callas over stage niceties. On an otherwise limp night, his sidewise glances, eye rolls and world-weary sighs delivered from behind a bushy beard brought a ripple of laughter. Every bark from Callas berating him brought another. He's the brightest thing on the stage - especially when he looks like wants to dump that pitcher of water right on her head. You'll love him.
Robert F. Wolin's sleek wood paneled walls add regal presence, although the soaring columns tend to take the eye upward, into blackness and away from the action on the stage. Lighting design (Karen Spahn) seems to enclose the stage in a bubble of light, furthering the sense of isolation. Mood changes and effects feel simplistic and unsubtle - like the glaringly obvious switch to a throbbing red during the monologue where Callas describes her relationship with Aristotle Onassis.
Costumer Jennifer Murray dresses Re in a black pantsuit with white trim - entirely appropriate for Callas - but the character fades into the background against the black piano, the wooden panels and the encompassing blackness of the hall. Yet again, Re as Callas seems entirely normal on stage in what amounts to "basic black," without fire or passion at all. I'm also not a fan of Allen's three-piece plaid number; it seems a little too purposefully outré, even for 1972. Kudos for the delightfully fanciful, floating gown for Cornell.
Sound quality (often an issue in the Daniels Pavilion) seemed poor on opening night. Actors struggled to be heard over the piano in nearly every scene. Re also fought the over-loud Callas recordings and piano music all night.
Please never ask me to sing for my supper. Email me, email@example.com, find me on Twitter at @napleschris or read my Stage Door theater blog. You can also sign up to receive the Stage Door blog via email.