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Arizona Onstage continues to impress with Maria Callas and her 'Master Class'

What a thrill it is for accomplished students, seeking to hone their skills, to have a one-on-one interaction with an artist considered the penultimate professional.

In Terrence McNally's wonderful and disturbing Master Class, the opportunity to study with opera singer Maria Callas can render a student vulnerable to humiliation—and doubts about one's talents and training—all while being the recipient of excellent advice.

Arizona Onstage Productions has given us a fine production of this fascinating play, currently running in the Cabaret Theater, the small upstairs venue at the Temple of Music and Art.

The play delivers a disquieting portrait of Callas, even as it makes us sympathetic to her abrasive behavior. As portrayed capably by Betty Craig, we witness someone wounded, totally immersed in the art she loves and struggling to make sense of who she is after her career is cut short by the deterioration of her voice.

Callas is indeed a character. From the opening moments when she jokes with the audience (which she casts in the role of onlookers attending her master class) to the moment when she devastates an obviously bright talent, Craig's Callas is intense, demanding, distracted, funny, harsh and touchingly connected to the songs we hear her students sing. She is also a little crazy. She seems suspended between worlds: an external world in which she has been both exalted and brought low, and an internal one where she harbors troubling memories of abusive romantic relationships, personal humiliations and the need to find a way to bear the oppressive weight of a stunted career.

Her artistic temperament, fascinating and cruel, both attracts and repels us. But we fall under her spell, cast by what we perceive as the enormity of her talent and her heartbreaking vulnerability.

McNally's play is a bit unconventional in that there is no overt conflict which drives the action. The natural structure and procedures of a master class provide the shape and progression of the play. Callas waits for each of her students to arrive, interacts with them, dismisses them and talks to us. At times in the presence of her students, she retreats into herself and speaks in extended monologues. But director Kevin Johnson and his small ensemble find an effective storytelling rhythm, complete with an increasing intensity which provides a satisfying sense of drama.

Craig does a fine job with a very demanding role involving a very challenging character. She embodies one who is convincingly in control of her class, in contrast to the world inside of her head. Not entirely aloof or hostile, she is also neither warm nor welcoming. Her Callas freely admits she barks, but assures us she doesn't bite—a claim with which her students might disagree. Craig is convincing as Callas pushes her students until they push back, helping them uncover a strong spirit.

However, Craig is not totally successful. Her focus seems to stray at times, which might come from a need to collect herself and reset her memory for her forthcoming lines; her character talks almost nonstop. But in those moments, our attention flags a bit. And sometimes in her intense moments, her volume drops to a level where her words are almost unintelligible. Nevertheless, she displays a genuine sense of who this complicated Maria Callas was, and she understands and ably portrays her character's investment in the music and words the various composers have created. Her students sing the words; she feels them.

The set is simple—a grand piano and a small desk. The small stage of the Cabaret Theater provides a near-perfect setting for the piece. Music director Elliot Jones applies a capable touch to the play's musical requirements as well as to his piano accompaniment for the students. Callas' students are portrayed by Kristé Belt, Erich P. Covey and Katherine Mendelson, who impress and entertain us with their obviously trained voices. They represent their characters well; however, they would be wise to further refine their acting skills.

Johnson does make some odd staging choices. For example, the first time Callas retreats into herself—which results in a monologue re-creating a troubling conversation with Aristotle Onassis, with whom Callas had an almost-10-year affair—Johnson has her seated at her desk, positioned about as far upstage as you can get. It's an intense and intimate moment which would have benefited from having her closer to us, especially considering Craig's volume issues. We lose some of what she says when it's critical that we hear her, because these monologues are the means by which we get into her head. Unfortunately, she just feels too remote.

For another of these monologues, Johnson brings Craig to the apron of the stage and isolates her in a closely focused but dim spotlight. McNally provides another opportunity for us to draw closer in our understanding of this complex woman, but she is too much in shadow—in the dark—and so are we.

As a whole, however, the group's effort is quite well-done, and even moving.

Master Class will appeal to a wide audience. It will appeal to those who have an interest in Maria Callas and opera-lovers in general, not only because of its main character, but because we get to hear her students and their sizable vocal talents. It will appeal to those who labor in the world of art, because it probes the question of the value of what they do. And it will appeal to those who embrace the arts as both entertainment and a source of nourishment for the spirit.

This is a very good play given a very good production. Arizona Onstage continues to impress.

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