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Master Class at Berkeley Rep

The Diva Behind the Diva

She was known simply as "La Divina", the paragon of grace and glamour. Wherever she took the stage- at La Scala, La Bastille and La Monnaie- she ripped the hearts right out of her audiences. Her mezzo-soprano had the power to shatter crystal and bedazzle millions. Her name was Maria Callas.

She was the only woman to have ever won the Oscar, Tony, Emmy and Grammy awards. With her unique combination of performative zeal, improvisatory genius and prodigious versatility, she continues to accumulate accolades at the age of 72. Her name is Rita Moreno.

In a new production of Master Class, Terrence McNally's Tony Award-winning play about opera singer Maria Callas, Rita Moreno takes the stage; and it seems apt to have one of the world's most celebrated divas playing that most inimitable of luminaries, la diva naissante.

Moreno and director Moises Kaufman intensify the original with a deeply moving and multi-faceted portrayal of a woman who was both a caustic virago and a defeated soul. Based on an actual series of classes that Callas taught in 1971 (six years before her death) at Juilliard, Master Class does not portray the diva in light of her golden years but rather it focuses on her during her most disconsolate and abandoned period. After losing her voice and the love of her life (Aristotle Onassis, who deserted her for then-widow Jacqueline Kennedy), Callas waged a constant battle with self-loathing as she struggled to maintain her persona as commandant.

Moreno plays the role with coruscating passion, sharing the stage with five other performers: a stage hand played with comic brilliance by Owen Murphy; a shy but offbeat accompanist played by Michael Wiles; and three opera students (played by Donna Lynne Champlin, Sherry Boone, and Kevin Paul Anderson), who parry Callas' injurious commentary and indomitable ego.

Murphy's first appearance as a stage hand is so subtle that it strikes the audience as minor- but his subsequent rejoinders to the exacting Callas are devoid of inflammation or dread, and it's refreshing to be presented with a character who doesn't pander to the diva's monstrous ego. Wiles, as the young piano player Manny, is the first in the ring of awe-struck novitiates and is so overwhelmed by Callas' celebrity that he's reduced to a sputtering mass of astonishment. The clumsily charming Sophie, played by Champlain, is equally humbled before Callas; the audience's heart surges out to her as she is beleaguered mercilessly by the older woman. The skittish Sharon (played by Boone) and petulant tenor Tony (played by Scully) are given a somewhat easier go than Sophie. It's a bit passť that Callas is most genial with her arrogant male student, whose final confrontation with the iconic figure is loaded with both impudence and flirtation.

Kaufman's directorship enables a sometimes banal script to transcend itself, especially with Callas' meditations on her past, which are especially brought to life by the ethereal character of young Maria (played by Cheree A. Sager), who dances dolefully in the background in a white ballet costume as the older woman recounts her most crushing disappointments in life and love.

Moreno deftly renders a woman whose ego is out of touch with reality, but who at times is painfully cognizant of her own limitations and deficiencies. In relating her early history, she becomes more and more complex and sympathetic and less the emotionally chaotic harpy that she appears as in the classroom. In Callas' second reverie about Onassis, she relives her life as the lover of the richest man in the world and with the happiness that brings, there is also all the humiliation and emotional stultification he subjects her to. Moreno's loutish transformation into the abusive Onassis as he torments Callas is disquieting and powerful, forcing viewers to see her self-protective chutzpah in an altogether different light.

Above all, Master Class is about the anguishing loss of artistic identity and the devastating nature of genius. With any all-consuming passion, a price is exacted. Callas acknowledges this as she views all audiences as the enemy. Despite her obsessive pursuit of celebrity, the sheer force of her loss propels the narrative and tinges her classroom fiascos with irony and sadness in this incomparable performance.