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Master Class
by Kerry Reid

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Playwright: Terrence McNally

At: TimeLine Theatre Company, Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave. Tickets: 773-327-5252;; $42.50-$56.50. Runs through: Dec. 9

Terrence McNally first wrote about Maria Callas in 1989's The Lisbon Traviata, in which "La Divina" is the shared obsession for a group of gay men. By 1995, he put Callas front and center in Master Class, based on open-to-the-public sessions Callas conducted for Juilliard students in the early 1970s. The play has drawn stage legends such as Zoe Caldwell, Patti LuPone and Tyne Daly to the role.

Add to that list Janet Ulrich Brooks, whose performance as Callas in TimeLine's current revival is not to be missed. What's astonishing about Brooks' take on the role is that she, like McNally's Callas herself, knows exactly how to calibrate her performance for both her fellow actor/students and for we the audience as she slides from generosity to bitterness and back again.

Although McNally's script provides melodramatic reveries as Callas recalls her unhappy love life (first with a husband much older than she and then with Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis), Nick Bowling's staging and Brooks' smart intense performance never devolve into cheap histrionics. As Brooks' Callas—long retired but still capable of throwing shade on other singers, such as Joan Sutherland—takes a trio of students through their vocal paces, she's also taking us through her own development as an artist and a woman.

Essentially, she's trying to find bits of herself in each of her students—from sweet ingenue soprano Sophie (Molly Hernandez), who improbably insists that she too is "fiery," to smug tenor Tony (Eric Anthony Lopez), to formidable diva-in-waiting Sharon (Keirsten Hodgens). It's the latter, so upset by her first encounter with Callas' caustic side that she runs offstage to vomit, who finally calls out the mentor. "You want to make the world dangerous for everyone, just because it was for you," she accuses. (All three are excellent, but Hodgens' delivery of the letter aria from Verdi's Macbeth is stunning.)

Is it a fair cop? The beauty of McNally's script and this production is that it takes no sides. Callas is right to note that too many of us are "looking for an easy way out." Her insistence that her students really listen to the music and do their homework is spot-on—singing is a form of acting. And yet, despite saying that the classes aren't about her ("Poof! I'm invisible!"), inevitably every encounter Brooks' Callas has with the students strips away part of them as well as herself, leaving them exposed and vulnerable. Is she there to help them, or is she more interested in making them—and us—see her as more than a fading legend?

There are plenty of operatic in-jokes here, but like Arnel Sancianco's handsome-but-austere rehearsal room set, those are just the backdrop for a story that could be about any powerful woman mourning her lost gifts and lost loves, yet still struggling to make herself heard.

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