Monday, Aug. 11, 2014

Those Who Exist Outside The Thunder in Milwaukee Chamber’s MASTER CLASS

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s season-opening production of Master Class is a perfectly enjoyable drama. Angela Iannone will doubtlessly be praised quite a bit for her performance as opera legend Maria Callas teaching students at the end of her career. With power intensity and gravitas, this is precisely the sort of thing that fits perfectly into the realm of Iannone’s skills onstage. Her first Saturday night performance garnered a standing ovation and I’m sure there will be more.

What might not get a whole lot of attention is the performances of those playing Callas’ students in the class. Of particular note here is Melissa Cardamone in the role of Sophie—the first student to receive Callas’ instruction as the drama opens. Perhaps playwright Terrance McNally’s greatest challenge was in doing justice to the legend of Maria Callas in her own thoughts and interactions while also rendering someone who is impossibly human. It can be a very difficult thing to master and I think he did it quite well. The greatest technical challenge that he hands to an actor in this play does not go to she who is playing Callas, however. The greatest challenge here may be playing Sophie.

The characterization of Sophie has to be very, very precise on a variety of different levels. She has to be a bit naive and innocent as she is being brought down to earth by Callas in order to instruct her. But she can’t seem completely ignorant of life on the stage and the basics otherwise she would never have been taking a master class with Maria Callas. Her abilities must be technically accomplished and driven by a passion, but the two must not be perfectly in synch until after Callas has given her instruction. What makes matters even more complicated is the fact that she needs to have very precise flaws that are worked out over the course of the instruction. Melissa Cardamone manages to juggle all that without losing sight of the central personality of a character who genuinely does sing for the love of the song and the love of the stage. For the character this is no ego trip. She genuinely loves what she is doing. It’s a very affecting performance—a delicate dance that serves as a counterpoint to the lightning, thunder and explosive fire of Iannone’s performance.

There are some other interesting performances in and around the edges of everything. Brian Myers is tremendously charismatic behind the piano in the somewhat marginal role of accompanist. Edson Melendez shows an appropriate kind of confidence and pomposity in the role of a tenor looking to learn from Callas. Alicia Berneche has a passion in her role of the second soprano student. Her performance has to slowly ignite over the course of an all-too-brief appearance after intermission. The emotional arc of the character isn’t allowed to have much of a flow as she appears, disappears and then reappears a little later on, but Berneche manages to maintain the right energy throughout.

 

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s production of Master Class runs through Aug. 24 at the Browadway Theatre Center’s Cabot Theatre. For ticket reservations, call 414-291-7800 or visit Milwaukee Chamber Theatre online.

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