Stage

Diva
Master Class. By Terrence McNally. Directed by Leonard Foglia. Starring Faye Dunaway, Suzan Hanson, Melinda Klump, and Kevin Paul Anderson. At the Golden Gate Theater, 1 Taylor (at Golden Gate), Aug. 12-24. Call 776-1999.

"This isn't about me," Faye Dunaway says, and the audience giggles madly. Master Class, Terrence McNally's Tony Award-winning portrait of opera soprano Maria Callas, started over 15 minutes ago. We know the play will revolve around the semipublic Juilliard "master classes" Callas taught after prematurely losing her voice, her lover, Aristotle Onassis, and her career; but, dramatically speaking, nothing yet has "happened." No student has graced the stage; no private secrets have been confessed; not a note has been sung. Faye Dunaway has effortlessly seized the stage as only a movie star playing a dead diva can do. She toys with the audience, casting a disapproving eye at noisy laughter or teasing a handful of furtive latecomers. Without plot or action, her performance becomes a study in stage presence. Every arched brow, tilt of the head, each directive to "ignore her" unleashes a new ripple of riotous affirmation: We cannot ignore you, you're Faye Dunaway, playing Maria Callas. You think we paid $47 to watch a play?

These indulgent exchanges, intrusive in any other context, here have a queer logic -- queer meaning peculiar but also in the sense of a drag queen's mocking homage to artificiality. Master Class -- especially featuring the illustrious Dunaway -- is a drag show in which we watch the creation of the spectacle of image and the pains it exacts on its medium, the human personality. At one point, a student confesses that she hoped to get some of Callas' famed "temperament" out of her lesson. That is, of course, all she can really hope to get. Callas -- bereft of voice -- is still burdened by the larger-than-life performer's personality. Yet despite her overweening self-obsession Callas tries to teach her students to forget themselves, listen to the music, and become pure vehicles for the emotion.

As the play unfurls, the self-effacement that Dunaway tries to pull off -- "I am invisible" -- becomes all the more improbable. Callas is depicted as too much of a prima donna to ever lose sight of her own monumental image. Indeed, the play is almost a monologue: As her students sing, Callas embarks on a series of fractured reminiscences over the course of which she relives the decline of her singing career and the broken love affair with Onassis. Also, the production has added meaning given Faye Dunaway and her aging stardom. Finally, the tensions between the identity of the artist and the purity of the art put the play into self-referential overdrive. Where does art come from? The selfless technique or the melodramatic temperament? And when the audience is moved by music or words, are we tapping into a deeper stream of being or simply admiring the gall of a giant ego?

Although much of the play is taken up with Callas' flashbacks, the most absorbing moments come in the simple, excruciating scenes between her and her students. The insularity of stardom cannot match the excitement of dramatic interaction between struggling characters. Even if the audience came to see Faye Dunaway, they ended up seeing four skilled performers, not one. In each of the three lessons Callas tears her students down -- reducing them to tears, vomiting, yelling -- but Dunaway's counterparts hold their own against her highness: a delightfully awkward Melinda Klump as the chubby, frilly Sophie; the self-possessed Kevin Paul Anderson as cocksure tenor Tony; and emotional firecracker Suzan Hanson as the giggling, impassioned Sharon.

In the beginning McNally gives Callas too much focus, too much theatrical status; the other characters are simply pawns for her jokes and caprices. This makes the play feel self-indulgent and static, despite Dunaway's impeccable performance. But the play gathers momentum as Callas loses her power and the students assert their identities. Sophie leaves the stage sobbing. Tony stubbornly persists and ends up awing Callas with his singing. As for Sharon, Callas concedes she has a lovely voice, but tells her she lacks that "something special ... that gift from God." In return, Sharon repeats the worst of the rumors about Callas: that she recklessly ruined her voice. "I hate people like you. You want to make the world dangerous for everybody because it was for you," Sharon cries. It is in these moments that one wishes McNally had been a little less enamored with Callas, and a little more attentive to the simmering wisdom of his fictional characters.

-- Carol Lloyd

Tossing Off
Tossing Monte. By Tess Collins. Directed by Janice Erlendson. Starring Zachary Barton, Lawrence Hecht, and Ken Sonkin. At the 450 Geary Studio Theater, 450 Geary (at Powell), through Aug. 31. Call 673-1172.

There's something faintly obscene about the title Tossing Monte, even though it only refers to the card trick you can sometimes watch hustlers play on buses through the Haight. "Tossing off" is British slang for masturbating; and a few lines in this play seem to toy with that overtone. There's the exchange: "Do you do anything other than steal?" "Yeah, I toss monte." And the unforgettable proverb, "A monte tosser never loses." (True true true. And never faces rejection.) Double entendres are no less funny when they're unintended, and I like to give the author the benefit of the doubt on these, because they lend the play dimension and wit.

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