How do you solve a problem like Maria?
She’s thorny and rude. Bitter and angular. Impossible about her work and particular about yours.
No, Maria Callas was not an easy dame; opera divas tend not to be. But her performance on stage, where it really mattered, was everything. Nothing was ever wrong up there. Or so we would think.
“Master Class,” written by the celebrated playwright Terrence McNally, and now in a stirring production at Musicalfare, tells this textbook tale of hero’s weakness, of performer’s terror. It asks not for admiration of the star Callas, or even reconciliation. It poses a far more dramatic curveball: What does authenticity cost? Can perfect ever be attained? And should we try?
Susan Drozd has a finely tuned production here that attempts to fill in Callas’ many callouses – her weaknesses, her rejection, her downfall – with performances that are neither grandiose nor imitative. It is full of subtlety and grace, from Chris Cavanagh’s gentle, evocative lighting to Drozd’s dalliance with McNally’s fourth wall. This is an astute production of a play that not only sermonizes on perfection, but comes as humanly close to it as we could expect. Much of this lies in her cast.
Christina Rausa delivers a Maria Callas that perhaps we had not considered. She has all the wretched milestones of a cataclysmic queen, but not in the delicious, extravagant ways we’ve come to associate with that crown; she is not a cliché. Rausa’s inner-fire takes time to brew, her cauldron getting stirred with each new revelation. By the time she delivers her astonishing monologue at the end of act one – an emotional breakdown that made me sit up and forward – we’ve come to appreciation the climb.
Rausa is working for this part, where Broadway actresses Zoe Caldwell and Patti LuPone probably owned it walking in. This organic performance is certainly different, but refreshingly, differently, just as effective. To be clear, and absolutely unfair at the same time, Rausa is not Maria Callas. She lacks a diva’s constitution, but certainly occupies the survivalist needs of one.
Defensiveness and offensiveness battle each other in this classroom session, which Rausa volleys with great discord. When she begs to be understood by a reticent, ignorant student Sophie (Renee Landrigan) it’s as much a plea to her own regrets as it is to her student’s potential. In all of these decisions, Rausa comes much closer to character than she does persona, even at the cost of a more ingrained sense of frigidness or terror. This is just fine.
Her students are fine foes. Landrigan’s eagerness fits Sophie’s nervous excitement well, earning Callas’ respect and our compassion. As tenor Tony, Raphael Santos is a clever match. Callas hates tenors and questions Tony’s commitment, but not his voice. Santos’ voice is something incredible, so we get it, too. His performance is wonderfully in the present, helping establish this master class as a meta environment on stage. Randy Kramer’s role as pianist Manny fills in this space with remarkable talent. His skill here is wonderful on display, and again serves the authenticity of this environment.
As Sharon, whose comic dissonance sets up all kinds of fantastic banter, Jessica L. Hall hits a home run. Hall matches wits with Rausa’s best sections, building a true climax that does not disappoint. Her voice, too, is so ideal that it’s hard to believe. Local opera companies, sure to be in attendance during this run, would be remiss to discount these theatrical performances.
The only perceived error, however small and insignificant to the narrative, is in the decision to ham up the role of stage manager, played by the equally performative Michael Wachowiak. His stage time is minimal, but detracts from the authenticity of this sacred space. He’s erratically too much in a play that requires a focused little. These are exactitudes that only a woman like Callas, so brutal in her pursuit, could make you believe matter.