It seemed at first as though Terrence McNally’s Master Class, a fictionalized play about Maria Callas’ real-life brief teaching stint at Juilliard, would forever live in the shadow of the inimitable Zoe Caldwell who originated the role here at the Taper and won the Tony Award during the play’s celebrated 1996 Broadway run.  This impression was only solidified when Faye Dunaway subsequently barked and postured her way through a national tour a few years later, evoking a Callas one would have suspected at any moment to scream, “No wire hangers!”.  Granted, McNally and Callas found new saviors in 2003 when director Simon Levy and his longtime professional muse Karen Kondazian conspired to bring glorious new life to the play in a long-extended run at the Fountain.

I wasn’t sure what I thought when it was announced that LA’s own acclaimed all-Asian theatre company East West Players would tackle Master Class this season.  Although an enormous fan of colorblind casting, I wondered if it might be too much of a stretch for an Asian actor to take on the difficult role of the infamously fiery, emotionally ravaged, and über-Italian international opera diva.  Then I learned that veteran LA director Jules Aaron had cast Jeanne Sakata in the lead role, and I knew I could allay all my fears.  Something truly amazing was surely about to be created.


Through all the bluster and insufferable demands as Callas conducts a 1972 workshop at the school, Sakata offers a nurturing side, a kind and gentle smile after she lambastes one student for not having a pencil or tells another she should work on something more appropriate to her limitations.  This Maria is not a total bitch; she is a realist who knows how tough it is to make it in the arts and thankfully pulls no punches.  If her three shaken charges (Isabella Way, Linda Igarashi, and Timothy Ford Murphy, all beautifully voiced and ready to conquer the world) leave the room harboring unthinkable things about their mentor, there’s no doubt that years later, after swimming in the shark-infested waters of our dreadful business called show, they’ll be thankful for the strength and wisdom this woman browbeat into them.

As Callas tells us, her audience grateful to be filling in as her students:  “If I have seemed harsh, it is because I have been harsh with myself.  I’m not good with words, but I have tried to reach you, to communicate something of what I feel about what we do as artists, as musicians, and as human beings.  The sun will not fall down from the sky if there are no more Traviatas.  The world can and will go on without us, but I have to think that we have made this world a better place, that we have left it richer, wiser than had we not chosen the way of art.  The older I get, the less I know, but I am certain that what we do matters.”

In the sections where the controversial diva drifts into fantasy, remembering her humble beginnings as someone who knew “when you’re fat and ugly, no one cares about the high F’s you can interpolate,” Sakata is mesmerizing.  And when she falls into a one-person dialogue between her challenging character and Maria’s boorish paramour Ari Onassis, she is uncanny in the delineation between the two—and as heartbreaking as a Piaf song in her reactions to the conversations.  Sakata also seamlessly intertwines the rise and fall of this great artist’s infamous braggadocio with intense moments of unbearably sad emotional fragility, ultimately presenting a woman who, despite international acclaim, could be easily toppled from her pedestal by the abuse thrust upon her by her lover, who in his guttural grumble tells his lady fair, “You give me class, and I give you my big Greek uncircumcised dick.”  


Way and Igarashi are solid adversaries for Sakata, filling the stage with some of the world’s most celebrated music, especially Way’s aria from Bellini’s La Sonnambula and Igarashi’s stunning Vieni! T’affretta from Verdi’s Macbeth.  Although an impressive tenor, as an actor, Murphy should listen when Callas advises his character to “simplify!” (his quivering eyebrows could out-Uturbi Jose).  Marc Macalintal is perfect as the class’ accompanist Manny, though the scripted jokes about his Jewish heritage take us a bit out of the story, and Alden Ray has wonderful moments as a snail-paced stagehand who isn’t about to take Maria’s abuse without a fight.

Thanks to the unearthly collaboration of Aaron and Sakata, this Master Class is one of the most significant highlights of the season in LA.  And thanks to McNally, young hopefuls who never suffered through the infamous tough-love acting classes led by those late-great larger-than-life monsters named Adler, Strasberg, Hagan, or Kenny McMillan, where students were taught by trauma to have an unflinching respect for the grueling art of performing (and seasoned pros got a reminder of why they got into this business in the first place), will for eternity learn much from the enduring passion of Maria Callas whenever and wherever this play is presented.  

Bring those arts students in by the busload, trainload, or boxcar to experience this sparkling Master Class, which can teach more in one evening than a semester of training.  In the gifted hands of this director and his courageous leading lady, artists, wannabe artists, and their admirers alike will be swept away by the unearthly spirit of a true survivor, someone who was bigger than life, because she took life by the short hairs and refused to let go.

East West Players is located at 120 Judge John Aiso St. in downtown LA; for tickets, call (213) 6275-7000.


TRAVIS MICHAEL HOLDER teaches acting and theatre/film history at the New York Film Academy’s west coast campus at Universal Studios. He has been writing about LA theatre since 1987, including 12 years for BackStage, a 23-year tenure as Theatre Editor for Entertainment Today, and currently for As an actor, he received the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Best Actor Award as Kenneth Halliwell in the west coast premiere of Nasty Little Secrets at Theatre/Theater and he has also been honored with a Drama-Logue Award as Lennie in Of Mice and Men at the Egyptian Arena, four Maddy Awards, a Award, both NAACP and GLAAD Award nominations, and six acting nominations from LA Weekly. Regionally, he won the Inland Theatre League Award as Ken Talley in Fifth of July; three awards for his direction and performance as Dr. Dysart in Equus; was up for Washington, DC’s Helen Hayes honors as Oscar Wilde in the world premiere of Oscar & Speranza; toured as Amos “Mr. Cellophane” Hart in Chicago; and he has traveled three times to New Orleans for the annual Tennessee Williams Literary Festival, opening the fest in 2003 as Williams himself in Lament for the Moths and since returning to appear in An Ode to Tennessee and opposite Karen Kondazian as A Witch and a Bitch. Never one to suffer from typecasting, Travis’ most recent LA performance, as Rodney in The Katrina Comedy Fest, netted the cast a Best Ensemble Sage Award from ArtsInLA. He has also been seen as Wynchell in the world premiere of Moby Pomerance’s The Good Book of Pedantry and Wonder and Frank in Charles Mee’s Summertime at The Boston Court Performing Arts Center, Giuseppe “The Florist” Givola in Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui for Classical Theatre Lab, Ftatateeta in Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra at the Lillian, Cheswick in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest at the Rubicon in Ventura, Pete Dye in the world premiere of Stranger at the Bootleg (LA Weekly Award nomination), Shelly Levene in Glengarry Glen Ross at the Egyptian Arena, the Witch of Capri in Williams’ The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore at the Fountain, and Dr. Van Helsing in The House of Besarab at the Hollywood American Legion Theatre. As a writer, he has also been a frequent contributor to several national magazines and five of his plays have been produced in LA. His first, Surprise Surprise, for which he wrote the screenplay with director Jerry Turner, became a feature film with Travis playing opposite John Brotherton, Luke Eberl, Deborah Shelton and Mary Jo Catlett. His first novel, Waiting for Walk, was completed in 2005, put in a desk drawer, and the ever-slothful, ever-deluded, ever-entitled Travis can’t figure out why no one has magically found it yet and published the goddam thing.