Review: ‘Master Class’

Award-winning thesp Karen Kondazian has found a role she can sink her teeth into, and she is not letting go. After a successful six-month run as international opera legend Maria Callas in the Fountain Theater revival of Terrence McNally's "Master Class," Kondazian has moved the temperamental diva to the Westside.

Award-winning thesp Karen Kondazian has found a role she can sink her teeth into, and she is not letting go. After a successful six-month run as international opera legend Maria Callas in the Fountain Theater revival of Terrence McNally’s “Master Class,” Kondazian has moved the temperamental diva to the Westside-based Odyssey Theater Ensemble. There is a new cast of opera student “victims,” but Kondazian still commands the stage as the self-centered Callas, for whom “art is domination.” Helmer Simon Levy allows Kondazian great latitude of expression but wisely keeps the pace brisk in this showy but troublesome legiter. Fortunately, Kondazian and an excellent ensemble elevate the work beyond its limitations.

Terrence McNally is one of this country’s most celebrated yet controversial contemporary playwrights. “Master Class” is utterly dependent on one of his favorite (and annoying) theatrical devices: bringing the flow of the play to a halt to allow a main character to poetically expound on his or her subtext in a monologue. Bogged down by two such lengthy, overly cathartic reveries, the Callas character is always in danger of sinking under the weight of her own narcissism. In this case, it is fortunate the voice at the other end of the diva’s self-serving mind trips belongs to Karen Kondazian.

In this fanciful re-creation of one of her Juilliard master classes in the early ’70s, a now vocally ravaged Callas rants and raves in true prima donna fashion about everything from the temperature in the room to the lack of style of those she tutors. Interrupting her charges’ vocal offerings often to pontificate directly to the audience (whose members are ostensibly auditing the class), Callas haughtily imposes her insights about artistic commitment and creative genius. Not seeming to know when enough is enough, McNally heavy-handedly digs into Callas’ angst-plagued history, laying bare the vulnerability and doubt hidden under the remorseless ego and biting wit of this troubled woman.

Kondazian makes it work, exuding a dazzling combination of cattiness and canniness as Callas illustrates her life, loves and artistry for the benefit and at the expense of her students. She manages to make almost everything, even the unwieldy monologues, sing. She is particularly captivating when taking on the persona of her abusive lover, the ragingly vulgar but imperious Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis.

Ably supporting Kondazian’s Callas are a trio of skilled singer-actors who are quite believable as master class students at the prestigious Juilliard Conservatory. Teressa Byrne captures the persona of monumentally rigid Sharon, a youthful soprano whose lack of understanding of the work she is performing spurs vicious ridicule from Callas. While keeping her growing ire in check, Byrne’s Sharon offers an impressively powerful performance of Verdi’s difficult “Vieni! T’affretta” aria from “Macbeth” and then tearfully rails against the cruelty of her supposed mentor.

As Sophie, the initial teaching “victim,” Khori Dastoor exudes the helplessness of a trapped mouse as Callas constantly interrupts her efforts to sing. It is a credit to the direction of Levy and the interplay of Kondazian and Dastoor that Sophie actually appears to be molded by Callas into giving an impressive performance of Bellini’s “Ah, Non Credea Mirarti,” from “La Sonnambula.”

Tony is the most underwritten role of the three, but Clifton Hall projects an appealing, Mario Lanza-like swagger as the overconfident young tenor who tries to win Callas over with his charm rather than his voice. Once goaded to the task, he does manage a respectable “Recondita Armonia” from Puccini’s “Tosca.”

Bill Newlin is excellent as vocal accompanist Manny, both as a pianist and as a selfless, caring individual who lovingly attempts to soothe the pain inflicted by Callas on her charges. In a carryover from the Fountain Theater production, Scott Tuomey provides much-needed comic relief as the underwhelmed stagehand who reluctantly caters to Callas’ desires.

Master Class

The Odyssey Theater Ensemble, Los Angeles; 99 seats; $25 top

Production

A Odyssey Theatre Ensemble presentation of a Fountain Theater production of a play in two acts by Terrence McNally. Directed by Simon Levy.

Creative

Sets, Desma Murphy; lights, Kathi O'Donohue; sound, John Zalewski; costumes, Naila Aladdin-Sanders. Opened, reviewed April 30, 2004; runs through July 25. Running time: 2 HOURS, 20 MIN.

Cast

Maria Callas - Karen Kondazian 1st Soprano (Sophie) - Khori Dastoor The Tenor (Tony) - Clifton Hall 2nd Soprano (Sharon) - Teressa Byrne The Accompanist - Bill Newlin The Stagehand - Scott Tuomey
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