HEAD OF THE CLASS
MASTER CLASS AT EAST WEST PLAYERS
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.