2nd Story Theatre presents the diva of diva's

PROVIDENCE, RI – At 2nd Story Theatre in Warren artistic director Ed Shea has changed what he calls the audience's "participation" in the play. Bill Gale checked out the new layout and the new production of "Master Class," a look at opera diva Maria Callas.

At 2nd Story these nights there's a whole new look. Artistic leader Ed Shea has bolted from his years-long theater-in-the-round motif. Audience members once again, sit facing the stage. The proscenium is back. And it's welcome.

But Shea, the speediest of directors, has not abandoned his almost frantic style. Or his kind of play. He's chosen to inaugurate the new setting with "Master Class," Terrence McNally's engrossing, coruscating look at the wreckage of the career of Maria Callas, that diva of divas.

In 1995 s "Master Class" McNally, author of "Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune" and "The Full Monty," has chosen to see the singer in decline. She's teaching at the Juilliard School in New York. Or rather make that "terrorizing." Her students stand in frozen fear before her.

"Master Class" is a play about why Callas was Callas. It looks in on her worst professional period. She's been abandoned by both her vibrant singing voice and the love of her life, Aristotle Onassis, who has unceremoniously dumped her, for Jacqueline Kennedy.

While she may be running on fumes and memories, she hides all that with a kind of sophisticated nastiness. The students, poor things, often don't get more than a syllable of an aria going before she interrupts with caustic advice. When the great lady mentions any of her fellow sopranos, such as Joan Sutherland, she says, sweetly, well, "She did her best." And later adds: "How can you have rivals when no one can do what you can do?"

A great opera fan, McNally weaves in the Callas cavalcade. Born in New York City, she was raised in Greece, suffered under the German occupation in World War II, feuded with her family, was driven by need, both financial and emotional, and later became a caricature of the prima donna.

It's quite a story and 2nd Story's cast tells it well. Gloria Christ looks uncannily like the diva, hair long, black and thick, lips red as sunset, eyes flashing. She manages to show you arrogance and humility, great success and great neediness. A bravura performance. The little girl is there inside of the world-famous artist.

The support is there, too. Charles Elder is a quietly competent pianist. The pair of sopranos ransacked by the diva is wonderfully played by Stephanie Morgan and Jacqueline Pina. You can watch them crumble under the Callas onslaught. But you also see them learn something about both singing and toughness. The tenor, played with American boyish feistiness by Josh Christensen, fights back more and is funny doing it.

Then there's that great veteran, Bob Colonna, as Onassis. He turns the Greek multi-millionaire into a hilarious bastard, matching, and over- riding, Callas, ego moment for ego moment.

So, there are changes at 2nd Story, a new look. But the work remains the same. Take a good story, and run with it.

Maria Callas, you think, would approve.

Want to Go?
"Master Class" continues at 2nd Story Theatre through September 3rd. Bill Gale reviews the performing arts for WRNI.

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