After 'Master Class,' you'll want more; 'Wonderland' reading at the Weisman

Star TribuneBy Pamela Espeland October 14, 2014

Time flies during “Master Class,” the Tony-winning play by Terrence McNally that opened Friday. Not because it moves through the years – most of it takes place during a few hours on a single day – but because it’s over too soon and we’re left wanting more. More stories, more singing, and more Sally Wingert, who takes on the daunting role of diva Maria Callas and fills it with power and passion, hilarity and sorrow.

Theater Latté Da’s director, Peter Rothstein, set his production at MacPhail Center for Music’s Antonello Hall. Acoustically sublime, seating only about 250, it’s a place where real master classes take place. As the audience, we’re part of the play. The rest of the cast includes Andrew Gourgoin as Callas’ stoic pianist; Paul Von Stoetzel as a lumpish stagehand; and Kira Lace Hawkins, Benjamin Dutcher and Kelsey Stark D’Emilio as hopeful young Juilliard students who have signed up for their moments with La Divina. They come expecting pointers, praise, a brush with fame or “feedback,” a word Callas reacts to as if it were a cockroach in her dressing room. Each is berated and harshly critiqued, yet each is smart enough to listen, watch and learn.

The singing by Hawkins (Rothstein’s Sallie Bowles in “Cabaret”), Dutcher and D’Emilio is superb. (And super hard: famous arias by Bellini, Puccini and Verdi.) Except for a single unforgettable note, Wingert doesn’t sing (although she did as Fraulein Schneider in “Cabaret”); at this late stage, Callas had lost her voice. But she could teach, and she could remember moments from her incredible life.

Opera stars were yesterday’s supermodels, pursued by wealthy men, their lives tabloid fodder. At several moments during “Master Class,” the lights change and we’re drawn into Callas’ past, her years on the world’s stage, her suffering as an artist, her insecurities, rivalries, triumphs and fraught relationship with Aristotle Onassis, who sounds like a brute.

The first time Wingert as Callas steps back into memory, she does it without saying a word. As Hawkins sings an aria from “Macbeth,” Wingert walks slowly to the back of the stage, passes behind the piano, and leans against a wall. Standing still, facing away from us, she pulls our whole attention like a magnet, and we know, or think we know, where she is: on stage at La Scala. That’s acting. When she voices the single syllable “O!” (which she does often throughout the play, as an exclamation), it comes from deep in her chest, carrying weight and sometimes pain.

And yet, despite the awareness that we’re seeing a star fading – “Master Class” takes place five years before Callas’ death – this is a very funny play. Wingert slings zingers with abandon. On Joan Sutherland: “She did her best … A 12-foot Lucia de Lammermoor? I don’t think so.” On stage behavior: “Never move on your applause. It shortens it.” Calling in a student: “Next victim!” There’s a lot of laughter in Antonello Hall, something we weren’t expecting, and one of the reasons we wished the play were longer than its two hours. Through Nov. 2. FMI and tickets ($35–$45). Tip: The center of the hall is raked, the sides are not. While we generally like sitting on the sides at Antonello, if you’re behind someone tall, your view might be obstructed.