One of the biggest recent stories on the entertainment scene concerns the biographical portrayal of a historical enigma: a woman whose life was clouded by controversy, a woman whom millions of adoring followers elevated from obscure nobody to near goddess. Fueling the buzz is the starring actress, a charismatic performer and tabloid cover girl notorious for her off-stage behavior. No, I'm not referring to Madonna as Eva Peron, but rather to Oscar- and Emmy Award-winner Faye Dunaway in the role of La Divina herself, opera superstar Maria Callas.
Heading the first national touring company of Terrence McNally's Master Class, Dunaway and the production have relocated to Fort Lauderdale's Parker Playhouse after spending two weeks at Palm Beach's Royal Poinciana Playhouse. Still flourishing on Broadway in its second season, the drama -- based on Callas's coaching sessions given 25 years ago at New York City's Juilliard School -- won the Tony, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics' Circle awards as best play of 1996. Its success is heartening; true, there's little risk in casting one famous personality in the juicy role of another, but McNally flirts with box-office disaster by gambling that modern audiences care about the twin themes of professional commitment and the importance of art. Thanks to Dunaway's impassioned and technically intricate performance, this version of Master Class hits the theatrical jackpot.
Only the fourth actress to play the role (Zoe Caldwell, Patti Lupone, and Dixie Carter appeared on Broadway), Dunaway is something of a casting long shot. Just three years ago Andrew Lloyd Webber tapped her to play Norma Desmond in the Los Angeles production of Sunset Boulevard; then, unhappy with her voice, he closed down the entire show rather than let her appear. Her victorious re-emergence as Callas accomplishes the comeback that the opera singer often contemplated but never attempted.
Arguably the most famous soprano of this century, Callas built her reputation in only twenty years -- with just ten of those regarded as truly exceptional -- before unofficially retiring in 1965, twelve years before her death at age 53. Born to Greek emigre parents in New York City in 1923, she relocated to Greece at thirteen and, at seventeen, accepted four powerhouse roles with the Athens Opera. Even though her talent was not fully developed at this time, her determination to sing any major role offered -- without regard for its vocal demands -- was to become one of her defining characteristics. Callas caused a sensation by bringing acting to the operatic stage; giving meaning and nuance to every vocal line, she invested roles with heartfelt emotion in an era when other opera stars merely planted their feet on-stage, flung their arms out wide, and sang. Certainly other singers had more beautiful voices, but no one was more fascinating to watch.
Callas left the stage at the height of her fame, but vocal changes caused by dieting away 62 pounds in fifteen months -- plus the strain of her exacting roles -- had diminished her abilities. Although she no longer garnered rave reviews, Callas continued to make headlines. The press had a field day reporting her affair with Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis and her ugly divorce from her husband/ manager, 30 years her senior. Not even her death, alone in her Paris apartment, escaped speculation: Despite her demise being attributed to a heart attack, her body was hurriedly cremated, inspiring rumors of suicide. Fanning the rumors was the purported existence of a handwritten note containing the lines of the aria in which Ponchielli's Gioconda resolves to end it all.
Unquestionably Callas's life offers any playwright a mother lode of dramatic material, and this is not the first time McNally has mined it. His 1985 The Lisbon Traviata derives its title from a Callas performance and features a crazed fan searching for a recently discovered recording of Callas singing Violetta in Portugal's capital; McNally devotes much of the first act to rhapsodizing about Callas's greatness. This is familiar territory for the playwright, a lifelong opera aficionado who makes frequent appearances on the opera quiz segment of the weekly Metropolitan Opera broadcasts heard on classical radio stations nationwide. In an interview quoted in Best American Plays 1983-1992, he recalled his solitary childhood: "I made a little stage for the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts every Saturday. I had little figures of Rigoletto and Aida. I'd move the scenery. To me that was more real than life." With Master Class, McNally still manipulates his characters, but his intriguing writing makes them anything but two-dimensional.
The lights inside the Parker Playhouse remain on when Dunaway walks onto the stage at the outset of Master Class. Before we can compare a kaleidoscope of celluloid images with flesh and blood, she heads to the stage's edge and begins appraising us, judging our appearance and intentions. Her unflinching gaze penetrates the room, transforming the audience into spectators at Callas's master class. The actress is aware that we have come for a rare look at a legend, but if that is the only reason we have come, she warns us, we might as well leave now. It's hard to know which dramatic sorceress has you in her spell -- Dunaway or Callas -- when the house lights begin to dim and the line between life and art starts to blur.
Exuding a diva's aura, Dunaway takes full possession of her role, and soon we are listening only to Callas. Pacing the set in a black designer pantsuit and silk scarf, she peppers her vocal instruction to three consecutive pupils with references to career highs and sardonic asides about opera-house rivals, stopping just short of complete revelation with a tantalizing "but that's another story, this is not about me." Her reveries, however, do not end soon enough to suit her hapless first pupil. Sophie (nicely played by Melinda Klump), a plump soprano, never gets the chance to sing, as her famous teacher repeatedly stomps on her first notes with advice illustrated through career anecdotes. Giggling with terror and anxious to please, Klump's Sophie ably reinforces the fact that we are in the presence of greatness.
The next "victim," as Callas refers to her pupils, is Sharon (Suzan Hanson). Fleeing the stage to throw up moments after her arrival, Sharon returns to sing her aria and speak her mind by questioning Callas's objectivity. In a role that won her Broadway predecessor a Tony, Hanson sings Verdi's Lady Macbeth with passion, but she's less convincing in her denunciation of Callas as a jealous has-been.
The classroom conceit really jells when Callas calls upon, in her description, "Mr. Tight Pants Tenor" Tony (Kevin Paul Anderson). Tony is every conceited tenor, preening with overconfidence yet radiating a young artist's hunger for success and maintaining the desperate hope that Callas's instruction might give him some advantage. Called upon to portray the best of the students, Anderson sweetly sings Puccini's "Recondita armonia" from Tosca, transporting not only Callas but the audience as well. Both Gary Green, as Callas's accompanist Manny, and Scott Davidson, as the stagehand who fetches the diva's footstool and cushion, add a humanizing light touch to the proceedings.
But this is Dunaway's show. The actress vetoed the wig and nosepiece originally suggested for a realistic portrayal of Callas, and, indeed, a physical re-creation is unnecessary: Dunaway's hold on Callas's personality -- and the audience's attention -- never wavers, even though she is on-stage nearly every one of the play's two hours and 25 minutes. One moment she is slipping into the guttural tones of Onassis berating his "canary's" devotion to her art; the next she is a shattered Callas, devastated by the abortion she underwent for Onassis and her career.
This dramatic sleight of hand succeeds not only because of Dunaway's multifaceted performance, but also thanks to the skills of the same team that created the original Broadway production. In the highly theatrical ending to the first act, Michael McGarty's starkly elegant off-white columned rehearsal hall is magically converted -- via Brian MacDevitt's lighting and projections -- into the grand opera house La Scala. And as John Gottlieb's marvelously integrated sound design brings up Callas's 1957 performance in La Sonnambula, the singer becomes transfixed by her remembered triumph, paralleling that opera's sleepwalking title character. Additionally, by highlighting the consuming passion of Callas and her students, director Leonard Foglia never allows the vocal lessons to descend into an academic discourse.
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Dunaway's embodiment of Callas is only her most recent accomplishment; her resume also includes Bonnie Parker in Bonnie and Clyde (Oscar nomination), Marilyn Monroe in After the Fall, and Joan Crawford in the high camp Mommie Dearest. Noteworthy too were her appearances in Network (for which she won an Oscar), Chinatown (Oscar nomination), Little Big Man, Hurry Sundown, Don Juan DeMarco, and Barfly; and she won an Emmy for a role on television's Columbo: It's All in the Game. Labeled with the film-industry epithet of "difficult" because of her perfectionist tendencies, she has also gained notoriety for her romantic relationships with counterculture comedian Lenny Bruce and screen heartthrob Marcello Mastroianni, plus her marriages to rock musician Peter Wolf and celebrity photographer Terry O'Neill.
Dunaway is a natural for McNally's ode to love, art, and obsession. Don't be intimidated by the operatic jargon; Master Class is not a boring vocal lesson any more than A Chorus Line is a dance audition. On the other hand, if you caught Area Stage's The Lisbon Traviata or the numerous local productions of previous McNally works -- Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune; Lips Together, Teeth Apart; A Perfect Ganesha; and Love! Valour! Compassion! -- then you may be surprised at his latest. Unlike his panoramic renderings of modern relationships that move us with emotion, Master Class exhilarates us with theatricality. Next year Dunaway will produce and star in the movie version of Master Class. See it for the first time on the stage, an arena that Callas ruled and one that Dunaway electrifies.
Written by Terrence McNally; directed by Leonard Foglia; with Faye Dunaway, Kevin Paul Anderson, Gary Green, Suzan Hanson, and Melinda Klump. Through April 13. For information call 954-764-0700 or see "Calendar Listings.