Maria Callas is a legend, and Master Class is playwright Terrence McNally's homage to the spitfire soprano's peerless artistry, ego, and diva idiosyncrasies. The current CAST production, with its customary experiential flair, has overhauled the antechambers and the lavatories at the Clement Avenue theater and turned them into a fortissimo initiation into opera. The box office is wallpapered with sheet music, and the barroom is festooned with lush fabrics, extravagant props and an armada of deerhead masks that set designer Robert Lee Simmons must have found on sale.
You'll also encounter La Divina's students as you belly up to the bar, each of the three in his or her warm-up routine. Each will sing for Callas.
Having seen both the Broadway production starring Zoe Caldwell and the celebrated Berkeley Rep version with Rita Moreno, I can say that Cynthia Farbman yields nothing to either superstar in her ability to assume the steely hauteur of the diva. Callas aficionados will be impressed by Farbman, an authentic opera singer, and with her Italian.
If you're not an opera buff, director Michael R. Simmons' slowed-down pacing will also be a boon, particularly when Farbman interacts with the Jay Thomas film montages projected on the upstage wall as Callas drifts into reveries of her operatic triumphs and personal humiliations.
The slower pace, enhancing the overall Callas portrait, tends to dull the points of her lessons as she torments soprano Sophie DePalma (Kristin Jann-Fischer) singing from Lucia di Lammermoor and tenor Anthony Candolino (Damien Genardi) singing from Tosca. More interestingly, Callas intimidates Sharon Graham (Mary Katherine Withers) so thoroughly that she misses her entrance as Lady in the letter scene of Macbeth.
The unsung hero at CAST is Adam Watkins, playing accompanist Emmanuel Weinstock with an ultra-natural deference, and playing some serious piano behind the Verdi and Puccini arias. Bravo.