photo by John Lamb

Play:           "Master Class"

Group:        Stray Dog Theatre

Venue:        Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue

Dates:        September 30, October 1, 2

Tickets:    $18-$20; contact 314-865-1995 or

Story:    Sophie De Palma, Sharon Graham and Tony Candolino have much in common.  They all are talented young singers, two gifted sopranos and a tenor, respectively.  Each aspires to greatness in the world of opera and is riding a crest of optimism.  And all have entered the prestigious master class in the early 1970s at the Julliard School taught by the legendary opera luminary Maria Callas.  Fact is, the words ‘master class’ are almost an anagram of the diva’s renowned name.

    In the course of playwright Terrence McNally’s Tony Award-winning drama, we learn that, in the opinion of Ms. Callas, we the audience are “the enemy,” that “art is domination, that “it’s important to have a look” and that “a career in the theater demands concentration.”  Those ironclad opinions reflect the powerful personality of the magnificent Callas.  We also observe, however, the fragility and insecurity that clenched their ferocious teeth into Callas’ tender psyche at an early age and never let go.  Thus, the demanding teacher often fades away into sad reveries even as she extends knowledge to her malleable charges.

Highlights:    First produced in 1995, “Master Class” is a beautifully written work that weaves a rich and complex tapestry for any formidable actress to caress.  Zoe Caldwell won a Tony Award for her effort, and has been followed in the role by the likes of Patti LuPone, Faye Dunaway, Dixie Carter and Tyne Daly.  Add Lavonne Byers to that impressive list of actresses.

Byers delivers a bravura performance as the sad, lonely Callas in a brilliant presentation directed by Gary Bell at Stray Dog Theatre.  She’s equally convincing as a caustic, self-absorbed tutor, who can reduce a student to tears and vomiting, or as a fading light in the operatic universe who lapses into melancholy while teaching.  Every word she utters is carefully and deliberately enunciated for maximum effect, as if Callas is shrewdly doling out treasured wisdom with her trademark voice.

Her performance is particularly affecting when sound designer Justin Been overlays a soundtrack of Callas’ own voice in recordings that indicate her superior artistic achievement as background while Byers lapses into forlorn reveries of an unhappy marriage, a twisted affair with loutish Greek magnate Aristotle Onassis or recollections of an unfulfilled childhood.  It’s haunting and mesmerizing theater at its finest.

Other Info:    Stray Dog artistic director Bell maintains a meticulous pacing that allows for moments of brevity that leaven the sober and serious elements.  With the notable assistance of lighting designer Tyler Duenow’s carefully etched illumination, Jay Hall’s simple but precise props and set design and Bell’s own flair in costuming (particularly Callas’ no-nonsense black pantsuit in contrast with the flamboyance of the tenor), the production allows for painstaking attention to its performers.

    Martin Fox provides strong, subtle support as Callas’ piano accompanist Manny, while Jessica Tilghman, Leslie Sikes and Jon Garrett all offer precise and well measured portrayals of a trio of students who may not learn as much as they should from their teacher but surely benefit from the experience.  And Hall provides some delightful comic relief as an unimpressed stagehand who isn’t inclined to share in Callas’ angst and existentialism, preferring just to keep everything moving smoothly.

    “Master Class” is a bountiful treat, expertly blending strong acting, beautiful music and superior writing in a vastly satisfying presentation that gets Stray Dog’s 2010-11 season off to a rousing start.

Rating:    A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.