Master Class

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Diana Torres Koss as Manny, Jennifer Mitchell as Sophie and Patty Gallagher as Maria Callas. Photo: Steve DiBartolomeo.

By Philip Pearce

JEWEL THEATRE COMPANY of Santa Cruz has just opened an expert and compelling version of Master Class, Terrence McNally’s gossipy sketch of the life and work of Maria Callas.

Set in the confines of one of a series of voice and acting classes offered at Julliard in the 1970s, the play fleshes out some familiar preconceptions about the flamboyant Greek/American diva in a way that makes for an entertaining evening at the Colligan.

The show stands or falls on the performance of its lead actress in a role that makes punishing demands on high energy emotional acting, adroit comic timing and just plain extended word count. Patty Gallagher does a wonderful job.

She’s obviously younger and heaps more winsome than the aging Callas was in the years when her voice had lost its power and her opera career had collapsed. Gallagher wisely avoids the kind of clever physical imitation that can brighten up a revue sketch but distract
and ultimately annoy in a full-length performance. Using her own impressive acting gifts, she probes under the surface of the character’s relentless ego and ruthless teaching tactics with an assurance that makes even some of the more questionable tricks and
starts of McNally’s script seem convincing.

One of many strictures laid on the three young operatic trainees of this master class is to avoid meaningless hand gestures and unfocused stage movement. Gallagher is a delight to watch as she applies that principle. In a performance that is a seemingly endless round of talk and physical activity she moves with unerring power, grace and meaning.

She presents a driven woman who controls every element of her classes like an unrelenting puppet master. She waits icily for back of house technicians to provide the prescribed lighting. She shushes the audience when they ignore the fact that she’s insisted on no applause after any of the student arias. She sarcastically patronizes Lucas
Brandt as a languorous, gum-chewing stage hand who finally shows up to meet her demand for a chair cushion and a footstool.  She dismisses rivals like Sutherland or Tebaldi with a silky disdain. They can’t really even be considered rivals. A rival “does what you do and nobody does what I do.”  I trooped out for the first act interval hoping to see at least some of this cast-iron artistic hubris fail or falter. Yet when it did, in Act Two, I didn’t feel gratification. I felt pity.

Jennifer Mitchell and Aubrey Scarr sing beautifully and act convincingly as two Julliard sopranos who face the master class with real but differing insecurities. Trainee tenor Mete Tasin, on the other hand, flaunts a sophomoric assurance that La Divina Callas soon
punctures. Yet in the end it’s these three struggling singers who unwittingly chip away at their famous mentor’s massive self-image even as she cajoles, insults and raves at them. It’s something that anyone who’s logged in time in a classroom discovers.  If you teach,
you learn more from the class than they learn from you.

A final word of praise has to go to Diana Torres Koss as the self-effacing Jewish accompanist whose name Mme Callas graciously asks for and then promptly forgets.  Torres Koss plays this, the play’s only entirely sympathetic role, even to the point of actually playing the piano. Is there anything this multi-talented lady can’t do? Complicated British Aykbourn matron in Woman in Mind, rollicking Nicely-Nicely Johnson in Guys and Dolls, multi-lingual housemaid in Fallen Angels, if she shows up in future Jewel shows high diving into a swim tank or successfully sawing a stage manager in half, I won’t
even blink.

Master Class is an absorbing event, which continues through April 3rd at the Colligan Theater in Santa Cruz’s Tannery Arts Center.