Janet Ulrich Brooks leads a superb Master Class | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

Janet Ulrich Brooks leads a superb Master Class 

Her magnetic, mercurial performance anchors TimeLine's portrait of Maria Callas.

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Lara Goetsch

A magnetic, mercurial performance by Janet Ulrich Brooks drives this portrait of opera diva Maria Callas, an international superstar in the 1950s and '60s. As famous for the burning intensity of her dramatic interpretations as for her sublime soprano, Callas was also notorious for her tempestuous temperament, her feuds with rivals she called "performing seals," and her premature vocal decline, attributed by some to the drastic weight loss she undertook to transform herself from (in her words) an "ugly duckling, fat and clumsy and unpopular" into a svelte goddess of the stage.

Terrence McNally's 1995 play with music finds the 48-year-old Callas giving a master class at New York's Juilliard conservatory in 1971, six years before her untimely death. In a neat metatheatrical stroke, the audience is cast in the role of observers at this lecture cum voice lesson, where "La Divina" critiques a procession of aspiring young singers, commenting on everything from the students' clothing choices and posture to their inadequate consonants and the lack of imagination they bring to their performances.

"No applause," she admonishes the audience. "This isn't about me." But of course it is, as Callas recounts her onstage triumphs with such collaborators as director Luchino Visconti and conductor Leonard Bernstein. Slipping into fantasy, she also relives her offstage tragedies—including her affair with the vulgar, superrich Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, until he dumped her for Jackie Kennedy.

In Nick Bowling's superb staging for TimeLine Theatre, Molly Hernández, Keirsten Hodgens, and Eric Anthony Lopez are excellent as the students, alternately inspired and intimidated by an aging star who reigned supreme when they were still in diapers. Stephen Boyer, as the class's starstruck pianist, provides fine accompaniment on the Steinway grand.   v

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