Reprising the role for the fifth (and certainly not the last) time with her company, Theatre Street Productions, Andrea Gregori this weekend is bringing her signature portrayal of diva Maria Callas to the Endicott Performing Arts Center. This not-to-be-missed performance, previously presented regionally at the Ti-Ahwaga Playhouse in Owego, the Roberson Center in Binghamton and the Waverly Opera House, is a tour de force for Gregori.
Master Class, a play in two acts by Terrence McNally, is set at a rehearsal space at the Juilliard School in 1971. Callas uses an accompanist and three students to work through some operatic drama of her own, expelling a few demons along the way and eliciting tears and offstage angst from starstruck, vulnerable students.
Solid performances were turned in opening night (April 24) by Jane Kucera as Sophie De Palma, who barely gets a chance to sing a note thanks to Callas’ maddening interruptions; Maria Aimoniotis as Sharon Graham, reprising her role as a student who is less inclined to brook any of Callas’ narcissism, and Steven Nanni as tenor Tony Candolino. He shares the part of Tony with Jordan Schreiner, who will take it over for Sunday’s performance (April 26).
Although she says very little, pianist Margaret “Pej” Reitz is actually assigned a role — Callas’ accompanist, Maddie Weinstock — rather than just being the keyboardist for the production. She has been Theatre Street’s official accompanist since 2007, when the company was founded, a really fortunate find for Gregori and company.
Joe Schmieg, recently seen as Swifty Lazar and Mike Wallace in Ti-Ahwaga’s Frost/Nixon, plays the stagehand here and is comical in his brief exchanges with Callas. It is his second outing in the role.
But the best reason to go see Master Class is Gregori herself. Although a classically trained soprano, she doesn’t sing very much in this play, which disappointed me a little. But watching her inhabit the body and soul of the operatic diva whose best days were behind her, is riveting, especially when you learn how Callas cast her pearls before the apparent swine that was her lover, shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. Yuck! The vulgarity and crassness of that individual lies in sharp contrast with the beauty that Callas must have embodied, although she sacrificed much to please him.
In 1977, Callas died at 53 of a heart attack, a sad end to an all-too-short life.
As directed by James Osborne, the actors are spaced very far from each other on the EPAC stage, and without amplification, which is intentional, but that made it a little hard to hear every word. The closer you can sit to the stage, the better. In the fourth row, I struggled a bit to hear, but Gregori’s body language and graceful hand gestures were loud and clear. Note: Gregori designed the multimedia slide show projections as well as the program featuring the famous “Oil of Olay” image of Callas that proves Gregori is almost a dead-ringer for her fellow Mediterranean.
Lorraine Tennant designed the lighting and sound, and Reitz was the music coordinator.
IF YOU GO: Master Class runs again at 8 p.m. today (April 25) and at 3 p.m. Sunday (April 26) in EPAC’s Robert Eckert Theatre, 102 Washington Ave., Endicott. Tickets are $20 ($18 for seniors and students). Call the box office at 785-8903, or visit endicottarts.com.