Fierce diva shines

26 November 2017

Review: Masterclass – Perth Theatre Trust ◆
Subiaco Arts Centre, 22 November ◆
Review by Varnya Bromilow ◆

I have a sparing knowledge of Maria Callas.  And while I love many forms of opera, I did spend the first five years of that love mispronouncing Puccini’s name.  (Pussini)  Bearing in mind these facts, Masterclass, currently playing at the Subiaco Arts Centre, should have been reasonably boring.  It was nothing of the sort, thanks to the remarkable stage presence of Amanda Muggleton.

The Australian actor (whom many assume is British on account of her accent) is best known for her star turn in another acclaimed one-person show – Shirley Valentine.  Remember that one?  In the early 1990’s the boomers gobbled it up – a tale of a life re-examined and re-invented, right in the crux of the middle 40’s.  Those same boomers were out in force last Tuesday night, now greying and slightly slower but no less enthusiastic in their passion for all things Muggletonian.  She is truly wonderful to watch.  Performing before a half-empty theatre, with house lights up, she is utterly at ease, strolling around the stage in the same way that you or I might stroll around our bedroom.  She cracks out instructions to us; berates us for the timidity of our responses; lectures us on the importance of a “look” (“This one here…she is very nice, I am sure, but she has no look.”)  This is a master class from one of the grand dames of opera…and we are here to learn, whether we like it or not.

Masterclass was written in 1995 by American playwright Terrence McNally.  It’s been around the block several times, picking up 1996 Tony awards for Best New Play, as well as Best Actress and Best Feature Actress.  Much of the writing is fiercely funny and while the narrative arc is not well-defined, the play has a tautness and energy that excuses the lack of story points.  This is Muggleton’s second time performing the role in Perth but there is absolutely no sense of fatigue or over-familiarity from this seasoned pro – each line is delivered with a crisp spontaneity, suggestive of improvisation.  The play presents a portrait of a fiercely wistful Callas in her latter years when she is teaching, as well as delving into her past – Muggleton suddenly slips into episodes from decades prior, as easily as flipping through a photo album.  We learn of Callas’ disdain for her contemporaries; her terror as a new singer, giving way to an otherwordly joy; her tormented relationship with Aristotle Onassis.  The scenes in which Muggleton switches between the roles of Callas and Onassis are some of the most memorable – the coarse, sneering fury of Onassis bludgeoning the ambition of his feisty lover.  Masterclass is in part, a tragedy of aborted opportunity.

Muggleton’s presence is so overwhelming the play often feels like a one-person show.  It’s not though – rotating around the dazzle of her performance are three accomplished young opera singers who are participating in Callas’ masterclass as students.  And so, we’re treated to snippets of Bellini, Verdi and Puccini as the students strive to win the admiration of their intimidating tutor.  For an opera lover, these scenes are exercises in exquisite frustration – the singers just cresting the divine top notes of an aria before Callas halts them in the tracks with an acerbic gibe.  Luckily for us, on the Tuesday night we were rewarded with three extra arias at the conclusion of the show.   They were all fabulous, but for me Kala Gare’s tender turn was especially striking.  Were her eyes filled with tears?  I think they were.

If you have even a smidgeon of interest in opera, Masterclass is unmissable.  If you enjoy seeing an actor at the height of her considerable powers, the same applies.                  

Masterclass plays until December 2nd.

Photo: Kala Gare and Amanda Muggleton. Photograph courtesy of Perth Theatre Trust.

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Author —
Varnya Bromilow

Varnya Bromilow is a happy dilettante who has worked as a journalist, advocate, oral historian, teacher and train driver. She spent 15 years with the ABC, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and The West Australian and enjoys writing fiction. She loves guinea pigs and the thrill of a good slide.

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