Theater Reviews: The Summer of the Diva in the Berkshires

Two current productions in the Berkshires—Master Class and Hapgood—feature excellent performances from powerful and accomplished actresses.

Master Class by Terrence McNally. Directed by Daniel Gidron. Staged by Shakespeare and Company. In repertory at the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre, Lenox, MA, through August 18.

Hapgood by Tom Stoppard. Directed by Evan Yionoulis. Staged by the Williamstown Theatre Festival. At the Nikos Stage, through July 21. (All performances sold out.)

By Iris Fanger

Annette Miller as Maria Callas in Shakespeare & Company's "Master Class." Photo: Kevin Sprague.

Annette Miller as Maria Callas in Shakespeare & Company’s MASTER CLASS. Photo: Kevin Sprague.

The notion of the diva is a complicated by the various meanings, theatrical and otherwise, that the word has accrued over the years. Sometimes it’s an insult, as if having an ego somehow dampens a woman’s achievements. At times it is a term of homage, particularly for the genuine article, such as Maria Callas, a twentieth-century opera star who became a legend, not only for her vocal prowess but for her large-scale personality and off-stage headlines. Callas was as big as the characters she played: there’s her rise from obscurity to celebrity, her transformation from ugly duckling to a figure of elegance, and her outsized passions and ambition. Finally, there are the dual catastrophes that contributed to her tragic denouement: the loss of her voice and her abandonment by Aristotle Onassis, the monstre sacre whom she loved, for Jacqueline Kennedy, who was more famous than Callas.

Shakespeare & Company is currently presenting Terrence McNally’s Master Class, based on a series of master classes conducted by Callas at the Juilliard School in 1971 and 1972. An adoring McNally intertwines the diva’s life and work, centering the piece on two monologues that explore her past. Otherwise, the bio-drama is simple in format: Callas enters, speaks to an accompanist, engages with three different students, and departs the scene. The original New York production won Zoe Caldwell a Tony Award for Best Actress and another for Audra MacDonald as the hapless soprano, Sharon, who refuses to be demolished by the demanding master.

Director Daniel Gidron has cast Annette Miller, a long-time stalwart of the Shakespeare & Company troupe, as Callas and then stepped aside and let her rip. Miller, who has been my friend for decades, is well-known for her portraits of strong, supremely successful, and self-centered women, including her Elliot-Norton-Award-winning, tour-de-force recreation of Golda Meir in Golda’s Balcony, which was entrusted to her by playwright William Gibson in its premiere production. This time, in the role of Callas, she makes every utterance a dramatic moment, even when the characters asks for a cushion for her chair.

At the start of Master Class, Callas, ever the diva, opens a door in the rear of the spartan set and takes control of the stage. Dressed in a black pants suit, full make-up, and a luscious, long-haired wig, Miller immediately demands everyone take notice, from the meek accompanist, Manny (Luke Reed), the sullen stage hand (Josephine Wilson), and each member of the audience. Miller’s Callas proceeds to set a few of the viewers straight right away: “Get a look,” she tells one, and then pounces on another before the house lights come down.

But her real “victims”—she declares that label to be a “joke”—are three aspiring singers, two sopranos (Nora Menken and Deborah Grausman), and an engaging tenor (Alec Donaldson) who are coming for their lessons. She is enraged by their indifference to the context of their arias and their casual approach to what she clearly believes is the importance of the art. After all, McNally implies, if art is not the supreme attainment, what has Callas sacrificed for throughout her life?

Gidron and Miller recreate the singer’s detailed coaching with aplomb: her handling of the scores, her prowling the stage, her concentration on the material while speaking the words she knows so well, her comments timed to the pianist’s accompaniment. However, it’s in the flashback monologues, evoked by the music, where Miller nails the characterization. Lost in reflection (aided by a rear wall illustration of the interior of La Scala), she talks about the arc of her successes on stage as well as recalls the marriage of convenience to the husband whom she left for Onassis. Miller is a consummate mime, able to transform easily into the crude, selfish Onassis through a hitch of her shoulders and curling of her lips, a voice that growls insults at the woman Onassis thinks he owns. She also turns the confident Callas into a groveling woman, begging for his love. The portrayals are startling, sad, and sure, all at once.

Jake Weber (Kerner) and Kate Burton (Hapgood). Photograph T Charles Erickson.

Jake Weber (Kerner) and Kate Burton (Hapgood) in the WTF production of HAPGOOD. Photo: T Charles Erickson.

Kate Burton’s turn as the head honcho of the British spy service in Tom Stoppard’s Hapgood is fascinating as well. Although she’s the only woman on stage among a cast of 12 men, Burton is no diva, although she is certainly a star. That’s not to belittle an impressive theatrical career that includes 18 seasons at WTF and umpteen leading roles, including Hedda Gabler at the Huntington and on Broadway (Tony nomination). Burton has always been a professional who knows how to work within the confines of an ensemble of equals. Although she has stage smarts to burn, she has a way of inhabiting a role as if she had merely stepped off the street into an alternative reality. As Hapgood, or “Mother” as she is known by her code name, she is crisp, intelligent, nuanced, and leagues ahead of the men she dominates. She is also a doting single mom to a young boy, which adds yet another complicating layer to the character.

The notion of duality is the central theme in Stoppard’s challenging play, which takes the opposing descriptions of light—existing as both particles and waves—as a metaphor for the opposites of the human condition. The playwright expands that vision of polarities into characters that operate in pairs, such as the spies, counter-spies, double agents, and several sets of twins that revolve (and re-revolve) through the multiple plots of the play.

Don’t expect a plot summary of Hapgood here, other than to say that the various comings and goings, exchanges of secrets—or not—and brief cases holding a damaging tape—or not—reminded me of the old Abbott and Costello routine that starts off “Who’s on first, What’s on second . . .” Director Evan Yionoulis’s imaginative opening to the Williamstown Theatre Festival staging is arresting: it choreographs the dropping of a brief case and the draping of a towel over the door of a bathhouse stall multiple times with the dance of more than a dozen moving doors. But the ensuing dialogue that introduces the characters and alludes to multiple deceptions only served to mystify this viewer.

Despite the skillful designers, who deliver a shadowy, film noir ambiance, and a cast of actors who are on the mark, nothing helped to distinguish the good guys from the bad or made clear what was transpiring. I liked Jake Weber as the Russian scientist turned double agent, or triple agent, even though his heavy accent blurred some of the words. In the end, it didn’t matter because, regardless of the how it was delivered, I would not have understood his long monologue explaining the physics behind Stoppard’s symbolism, an exegesis that stops the action cold. Although driven by Burton’s assured performance, Hapgood should be considered a flawed prelude to Stoppard’s masterpiece, Arcadia, which held me breathless from beginning to end.

Stay tuned: there are divas to come as the summer theatrical season in the Berkshires continues. Olympia Dukakis will appear in the title role of Mother Courage and Her Children (July 26 through August 25), and Tina Packer takes on the querulous mother with Elizabeth Aspenlieder as her care-giver-daughter in The Beauty Queen of Leenane (August 8 through September 15). Both productions will be staged by Shakespeare & Company.

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