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TheatreVirginia's "Master Class" struggles to maintain momentum. 

Deconstructing the Diva

"Master Class"
TheatreVirginia
Through May 30
$20-$31
353-6161

Terrence McNally is one of the strongest voices in American theater. Yet with "Master Class," currently showing at TheatreVirginia, he seems to have gone a little hoarse. A fictional re-creation of a class given by opera diva Maria Callas at the Juilliard School of Music, "Class" eventually shows evidence of McNally's talent for snappy dialogue between well-drawn characters. But it's well into the second act by then, after the washed-up star has humiliated a couple of students and taken a self-indulgent ramble down memory lane. While the last quarter of the play has some riveting scenes that let the actors shine, they just barely make up for the unfocused first act.

Perhaps McNally shouldn't have tried so hard to make "Class" more than what it is: a play about opera. As if acknowledging that the subject might limit the show's appeal, the playwright has Callas (played by Rosemary Prinz) make sweeping, and ultimately trite, statements about "art." "Art is domination," instructs Callas. "Art is about transitions." Add in her commands "Don't try. Do. Don't act. Be!," and you have "Callas, Jedi Knight," not opera's greatest celebrity.

The play and Prinz do better when the character is allowed to demonstrate her domineering personality in interactions with others. She gets warmed up by chiding her accompanist Manny (played with puppy-dog idol-worship by Andrew Abrams) to develop a distinctive look. You can see the twinkle in Prinz's eyes as Callas moves on to the first of her "victims" (as she calls her students), an obsequious soprano named Sophie (Kate Coffman). In dismissing the giggly, knock-kneed girl, Callas hardly breaks a sweat.

When overconfident tenor Tony (Vale Rideout) strides out on stage in the second act, it's clear that a character has finally arrived who can challenge Callas. The play gathers strength during the verbal duels between Prinz and Rideout, and then hits its stride with the arrival of Sharon (Teri Hansen), an uncut diamond who achieves new radiance thanks to Callas' cutting guidance. Prinz throws her whole body into these scenes, circling and stalking Hansen, bullying her into being better. Hansen's voice soars in electrifying arcs of emotion. Then, in an aggravating case of opera interruptus, we are thrown into another historical flashback that brings the play's momentum to a grinding halt.

The one positive thing that can be said about the flashback sequences is that they highlight the nice work of lighting designer Lynne M. Hartman. Hartman uses spotlights, footlights, and washes of different background colors to intensify these scenes. Otherwise, the flashbacks only clumsily fill in rough outlines of Callas' life (growing up in Greece during wartime) and loves (she left her first husband for Aristotle Onassis only to be thrown over for Jackie Kennedy). Ultimately, the most complete — and theatrically satisfying — glimpses of who Callas was come from her interaction with her students. Prinz does a fine job of portraying this passionate, belligerent, and tragic figure. It is only a shame McNally doesn't let her do her job earlier in the
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