Withering Heights

Master Class and The Brontë Project examine the lows that come with high aesthetics

While Minneapolis Metro Transit is not ordinarily an incubator of theatrical criticism, Jodi Kellogg's performance as Maria Callas in Terrence McNally's Master Class, currently playing at the Park Square Theatre, got low marks from a fellow passenger on the 21 bus headed out of St. Paul. Seeing a copy of the script in my hand, a grinning fellow with a gray-flecked beard shook his head in disappointment. "I expected more, I expected bigger," he complained. "How else can you play Callas?"

With all due respect to my fellow bus-commuting theatergoer, I disagree. Certainly, the role of Maria Callas invites bombast--particularly in McNally's play, which has the aging, ungovernable soprano leading an advanced class in opera technique. She rambles, berates her students, flirts with her audience, and slips into musically inspired spells of anamnesis, in which she spews foul, near-unintelligible dialogue. Recalling her former swain Aristotle Onassis, she quotes the Greek tycoon demanding she sing filthy songs and crying out, "I give you my big, thick uncircumcised Greek dick and you give me class." If this doesn't demand an oversized performance, what does?

How do you solve a problem like Maria? Callas (Jodi Kellogg, right) torments a pupil (Karin Wolverton) in Master Class
How do you solve a problem like Maria? Callas (Jodi Kellogg, right) torments a pupil (Karin Wolverton) in Master Class

And there is a hint of megalomania in Kellogg's Callas. But this production is not simply a series of grandiose gestures and temper tantrums, which I suspect would grow exhausting very quickly. While Callas is one of the few women in the 20th Century to have honestly earned that now-exhausted sobriquet "diva" (and her fans had an even grander pet name for her: "La Divina," the Divine One), McNally's script does not mire in her legendary moodiness--and so neither does Kellogg. Instead, Kellogg grandstands, eschewing the details of her life or gossip about fellow performers in favor of devoting extraordinary energy to pinning down the qualities that transform a singer from bland to extraordinary. She snaps at her students for everything from their appearance to their timid entrances, demanding that a soprano (Amy Lauck) sing for her and then cutting her off on her very first vowel. "I'm sorry to do this to you," Kellogg says dismissively, "but what's the point of going on with it if it's all wrong?"

And it is Callas's exacting, demanding insistence on the primacy of performance that makes Kellogg appropriate for the role. Kellogg has an enviable presence--at once comfortable and imposing, as though the stage were her own personal fiefdom (and the Park Square might as well be, having featured her in more than a dozen roles in the past few years). Kellogg's command of the boards is such that she can interrupt other performers simply by fiddling with her purse. Next to her, the various students do seem awfully bland. In one scene, Kellogg acts out the lyrics from La Sonnambula, spontaneously translating the Italian into English as she kneels on the ground and grieves for a lost love. It is a showy performance: audacious and theatrical, consisting of a sort of breast-beating emotionalism that is just a hair's breadth shy of being melodramatic.

Next to Kellogg, the other performers have the stage presence of the desiccated gum stuck under the auditorium seats. Listening to one soprano (Karin Wolverton), who possesses a powerful, haunting voice and whose eyes flash with a surprising malevolence as she sings Verdi, Kellogg haltingly offers a devastating bit of advice. "I think you should work with something more appropriate to your limitations," she advises. "It takes more than a pretty voice to build a career." The words are offered without malice, as though the suggestion should not sting, but is instead simply a friendly, commonsense piece of business advice--and Kellogg's Callas seems genuinely shocked when it draws tears.

This scene could be played for sadism, with Callas's advice meant as a jealous blow against a promising young talent. But Kellogg's take is more interesting: The Callas onstage at the Park Square is an aesthete, desiring genius in each performance she encounters, and stating plainly her disappointment when she does not find it. How very like a critic; I don't know what Callas would have opined if she rode the 21 with me, but I suspect, like me, she would have been satisfied with the portrait presented onstage.

 

If only poor Anne Brontë could find even a measure of such contentment. The defining feature of this character in 15 Head's The Brontë Project is her dissatisfaction. Played by Kelly Hilliard, the unfortunate girl is perfectly aware of how completely she has been overshadowed by the literary legacy of her older sisters, Charlotte and Emily. "Let's face it," she says, scowling at the audience, "before tonight, you never knew I existed."

Like 15 Head's Coco, which opened last week, The Brontë Project reconstructs the story of its central characters through a hodgepodge of texts and imaginative staging. In this instance, two Brontë sisters who died young, Maria and Elizabeth (played by Rebecca Myers and Valerie Marsh), continue to haunt their three living sisters throughout the production, peering through windows, commenting on the action, and occasionally bursting into song along with Charlotte (Vera Mariner), who has an anachronistic fondness for blues ballads. This kind of playfulness runs throughout this production: The sisters fling sugar cubes at Anne, who mocks the ongoing arguments about Charlotte and Emily's genius. Whenever a sugar cube lands in Anne's teacup, the sisters interrupt with close four-part harmonies.

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