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Simon Parris reviews MASTER CLASS

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See review in its original context here by Simon Parris.

The planets have aligned for an extraordinarily synergistic match of artist and material, as Maria Mercedes channels the very essence of Maria Callas in this riveting presentation of Terrence McNally’s play Master Class.

Produced on a modest budget, the passion and skill involved eclipse many a main stage production. What fortyfivedownstairs lacks in similarity to the Juillard School setting it makes up for in atmosphere and intimacy. The textured windows and walls of the space take on ghostly shadows as Callas is haunted by her past demons. This is a very rare chance to hear this play unamplified, and the effect is electrifying. The combination of McNally’s ear for natural dialogue, Mercedes’ utter immersion in the role and the intimate setting creates a presentation so real that it is very hard to forget we are not at an actual master class.

Director Daniel Lammin has used the minimal staging elements as an asset to allow full focus on the text. Blessed with a highly talented company of five (plus associate director Cameron Lukey as the surly stagehand), Lammin has meticulously brought out rich nuances of vocal and physical expression. Best of all, Lammin plays the humour completely straight, thus expertly maximising its impact; some laughs were so good they received applause.

One of a trio of opera-themed plays by McNally, Master Class uses the realistic scenario of one of Callas’ master classes in voice as a springboard to a fantasia of La Divina’s driven, troubled, illustrious opera career and love life. Besides our own La Stupenda Joan Sutherland, some of the names of Callas’ rivals colleagues may be unfamiliar to audiences, but the operas mentioned are very timely: Bellini’s Norma plays in Melbourne this Saturday; Tosca will be seen in November; and tenor aria “Recondita Armonia” was heard only last week in a spectacular Melbourne concert.

A master stroke of this production is the use of three actual opera singers playing the three singers who take part in the class. Sounds obvious doesn’t it, but maybe someone should have suggested it to the 2011 Broadway revival. Georgia Wilkinson as the timid Sophie, Robert Barbaro as the cocky Tony and Anna Louise Cole as the forthright Sharon are each completely convincing in their roles, and are an absolute pleasure to hear. Each also achieves the challenging goal of showing faults in their singing and performance, and then correcting them under Callas’ relentless instruction; this is very satisfying to watch.

Cameron Thomas is a delight as modest accompanist Manny, displaying an authentically light touch on the piano and gently playing the straight guy without attempting to stand on anyone else’s laughs.

But back to Mercedes. In a performance sure to be one of the highlights of the Melbourne theatre year, Mercedes shimmers in the role she was born to play. The fact that she bears an uncanny resemblance to the great Callas avoids the usual distracting element of the lead actress’ “performance” in the role. Mercedes simply “is” Callas, and we all easily suspend disbelief as we hang on her every word and move. Inhabiting the role in a truly authentic sense, there is never the slightest danger of Mercedes reducing any of Callas’ bitchy retorts or snide putdowns to camp excess.

The extended flashback monologues, one in each act, are nothing short of amazing. Each begins with the memory of the music sending Callas into a hypnotic trance, before she unleashes a frenzy of memories ranging from scarring traumas to triumphant successes. In addition to these sequences, two particular moments give a measure of Mercedes’ success in the role: a moment of kindness to rattled soprano Sophie warms the heart of the audience; and, more significantly, when forthright soprano Sharon gives Callas back a little of her own verbal medicine, Callas’ pain is keenly felt by all. To earn such an affectionate and protective response from an audience while playing what is essentially a caustic, unrelenting diva is a major achievement.

Owen Phillips’ costumes are spot on, and Brendan Jellie cleverly achieves a wide range of effects using only a minimum of lights.

With a top price under $40, Master Class is a minor miracle. La Divina demands your attendance at her Master Class.

Master Class plays at fortyfivedownstairs until 28 August 2014.



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