Review: Maria Callas Comes to Life in Timeline’s Impressive Master Class

It’s not likely (though perhaps possible) that director Nick Bowling and music director Doug Peck knew when they selected Terrence McNally’s Master Class for Bowling’s 30th production at Timeline Theatre Company that Magnolia Films would soon be releasing a new documentary about the play’s main character, the opera legend Maria Callas. That the play, based on a series of classes Callas taught at Juilliard in the early 1970s, and the film both open in Chicago right around the same time (Master Class runs through December 9; Maria By Callas opens here on November 16) may be a coincidence, but they make for a stunning double feature on stage and screen.

Master Class
Image courtesy of Timeline Theatre Company

A review of the documentary is forthcoming on our Screens page; for now, let’s stick with the play, here starring Janet Ulrich Brooks as Maria Anna Cecilia Sofia Kalogeropoulos, or as you and I know her, Maria Callas. Timeline is staging this production at Stage 773 and scenic designer Arnel Sancianco has recreated a stark, sparsely furnished rehearsal studio that’s dominated by a black Steinway at its center. The piano doesn’t own the stage for long, however, as Brooks makes her entrance as Callas and all eyes are on her, as they should be. The transformation is quite breathtaking, her dark brown wig, all black clothes, and chunky jewelry and glasses all evocative of Callas in her final decade (she would die from a heart attack in 1977); the only thing missing here is her signature cat-eye eyeliner, though maybe I just couldn’t see it from my seat.

From the get-go, Callas breaks the fourth wall, telling us explicitly that we are in a classroom, not a circus; there are rules to be followed (no applause, no photos, no autographs) and our presence there is a privilege. With that bit of housekeeping out of the way, the plot of the play is essentially established: there will be students, there will be singing, there will be Callas imparting her wisdom and wit on us all. That’s pretty much all there is to it, and it is wonderful. Funny, moving and insightful, too.

Before she gets to the business of intimidating the trembling sopranos (and a tenor) who arrive to learn from “La Divina” herself, Callas fills the space with her own anecdotes and observations on everything from her craft to her lovers to her scandals. Brooks nails Callas’ accent and cadence, keeping the monologues that make up the bulk of the script from ever being boring. And that’s all without ever singing a note. That’s left to the students: Sophie (Molly Hernández), Tony (Eric Anthony Lopez) and Sharon (Keirsten Hodges), who bring their talent (and nerves) into the rehearsal space for Callas to critique. Each sparks different memories for Callas, and as they perform their selected arias from classics like Tosca and Macbeth, their voices slowly fade and we’re transported (with the help of some nice lighting work) back to some of the most poignant—and sometimes painful—moments of her life.

A role that claims at least 75 percent of a production’s lines is a massive undertaking for any actor; when that role is also one of the most acclaimed opera stars of the last century, known as much for her temperament as her voice, it must seem nearly insurmountable. Thankfully, Brooks rises to the occasion, channeling every bit of her petite frame into becoming the legend herself. She certainly earns every laugh woven into McNally’s script (though I think the audience around me found more of them than he intended to be there), and after a marathon performance for the show’s two-hour-plus runtime (with one intermission), she also earned the standing ovation she got during the curtain call.

More than 40 years after her death, Maria Callas remains one of the most acclaimed (and perhaps infamous) opera stars ever to grace stages from Rome to New York and back again. It’s Chicago’s luck that in addition to an insightful, intimate documentary about her, this season we also get this impressive staging of an acclaimed show that delves into both her psyche and her lasting impact on generations of performers and audiences alike.

Costuming is by Sally Dolembo, wig and hair design by Kate Cordts. Jessica Neill is lighting designer and Andrew Hansen gets credit for the very important sound design. Eva Breneman coached Brooks on dialect design.

Master Class, presented by Timeline Theater Company runs through December 9 at Stage 773 (1225 W. Belmont). Tickets range from $42.50-$56.50, with student discounts available. Learn more and get tickets here.

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Lisa Trifone
Lisa Trifone