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'Master' delivers on its lessons

November 21, 2003|Rob Kendt;Daryl H. Miller;Philip Brades;David C. Nichols

Genius resists explanation, least of all by geniuses themselves. So why should we listen to the erratic, self-indulgent Maria Callas, who leads Terrence McNally's "Master Class" with all the delicacy of a drill sergeant?

Put another way: Did Callas' otherworldly brilliance at the midcentury height of her operatic career make her an authority on her art, outside the practice of it?

The answer provided by McNally's alternately riveting and maddening play, which premiered locally at the Mark Taper Forum in 1995, is a resounding yes and no. In director Simon Levy's handsome, intimate revival, we see the play anew as an impassioned demonstration of how inseparable a great practitioner's art is from herself. She is her art, in essence, and that not only can't be taught -- it can barely be understood.

As Callas, Karen Kondazian embodies this irreducibly personal vision down to her toes. A diva in her own right, Kondazian nails the role's sweeping hauteur and catty humor. More importantly, she plumbs both extremes of Callas' emotional journey, from the ecstasy of her world-beating success to the abject depths of her misbegotten love life.

Levy has mixed success with the students who bravely face the master's abuse: Danielle Nice sings better than she acts, Terence Jay vice versa. Achieving the right balance of character and vocal prowess is nervy Hila Plithmann as a soprano bullied into a fiery rendition of an aria from "Macbetto." When she turns the anger back on her domineering teacher, Callas admits feebly, "Maybe this teaching has been a mistake." She's only half right. This "Master Class" may be tough on its ostensible students, but for us it proves a wrenching, cathartic life lesson.

-- Rob Kendt

"Master Class," the Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Hollywood. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends Dec. 21. $25. (323) 663-1525. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

*

'Penetrator' brutal in its intensity

The Anthony Neilson play "Penetrator" takes an unblinking look at brutality in modern society, from disrespect toward the opposite sex to sadism on the battlefield. But by the time that one character has pinned another to the floor and is menacing him with a long, ugly knife, the audience realizes that it too is being brutalized.

Neilson, a Scottish writer, is known for his in-your-face style, and the Rude Guerrilla Theater Company has a well-documented penchant for provocative material. This time, though, the troupe has been foolhardy.

The story begins with a voice-over describing a porn-magazine sex fantasy, then catches Max (Tim Giblin) in the midst of a very private act. When he turns around, the audience gets an embarrassingly long look at his lower anatomy.

A noise at the door announces the return of Max's roommate, Alan (Marcus DeAnda). (Director-set designer Jay Michael Fraley renders their L.A. digs as a black hole of shabbiness and filth.) Bored and disagreeable, Max tries to pick a fight with the more sensitive Alan while ranting about various topics -- especially women -- and ingesting a daunting variety of mind-altering substances.

A playful camaraderie keeps trying to reassert itself, but worse trouble is on the way as Max's old buddy Woody (Steven Parker) pays an unannounced visit, his Marine fatigues ominously covered with blood.

There's no intermission and no unobtrusive way to exit the small theater midperformance, so there's no escaping what happens next. Vividly executed, these events demonstrate how hatred warps the minds of victimizer and victim alike, while hinting at humankind's blundering, sometimes hurtful attempts to find affection. But mostly, the production wallows in its ability to make the audience uncomfortable -- and that's no way to treat ticket-buyers.

-- Daryl H. Miller

"Penetrator," Rude Guerrilla Theater Company, 200 N. Broadway, Santa Ana. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2:30 p.m. No performances Nov. 28-30. Additional performance Dec. 11, 8 p.m. Ends Dec. 14. $15. (714) 547-4688. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.

*

'Nun' means well, comes up short

There are valuable lessons to be learned from the life of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz. A brilliant thinker in a time when women weren't encouraged to use their minds, the 17th century Mexican nun conceived beautiful poetry and smartly reasoned philosophy.

Sor Juana's life -- and, in particular, persistent speculation about the true nature of her relationship with her most devoted benefactress -- has given rise to "The Nun and the Countess." Written and directed by Odalys Nanin, the play seems intended as a meditation on freedom and equality. But clumsy writing and awkward performances short-circuit the good intentions in this MACHA Theatre Company presentation.

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