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Saving Grace 

Dorothy Silver brings class to Class.

Heather N. Stout and Curtis D. Proctor in Ben - Jonson's The Alchemist.
  • Heather N. Stout and Curtis D. Proctor in Ben Jonson's The Alchemist.
It defies logic that Terrence McNally, a noted opera aficionado and erudite regular on the Metropolitan Opera's radio quiz, wrote Master Class. He has distorted the memory of opera legend Maria Callas in this fever dream of a play, turning her into a tortured and torturing Hollywood leading lady.

The real Maria Callas was noted for her tenacity. She built her life and career on discipline and a nunlike devotion to her music. From her beginnings as an obese Greek peasant girl with an effective but piercing voice, she willed herself into a svelte demigod, the Garbo of grand opera.

Callas's ceaseless ambition, which drove her to sing roles beyond her range, eventually wore out her voice. After her stage career came to an end, she conducted a series of master classes at Juilliard. Biographer Stelios Galatopoloulos wrote of the "warmth and even affection" she had for her pupils. "On no occasion did she lose her sense of humor or patronize or even reproach them."

McNally's conception of her is the exact opposite. He paints her as a cross between Margo Channing, that high priestess of artistic temperament from All About Eve, and Blanche DuBois, Tennessee Williams's neurotic belle on the brink of insanity. McNally shamelessly exploits the singer's brief sojourn as an instructor. The play, which is set in a classroom, shows her shredding her students' fragile egos. When not belittling the janitor, she gleefully demolishes such rivals as Joan Sutherland ("I won't hear anything against my colleagues. Joan did her best. Like her looks, it wasn't her fault that she's a 12-foot Lucia di Lammermoor").

Portrayed as capricious and vain, McNally's Callas files her nails as one of her students starts to perform. During the aria she is supposed to be evaluating, she strikes a pose, and the play goes into awkward voice-over flashbacks. They depict her sexless marriage with an aging piggy-bank of a husband and some sadistic encounters with her one great passion, tycoon Aristotle Onassis.

The play is repetitive, dishonest, and disingenuous. The one thing it has going for it is the opportunity it affords an aging grande dame to dress up in haute couture duds, flutter about like an iron butterfly, and heave beatific sighs. The role is a guaranteed attention-getter: It has that brand of emotional grandeur that garners kudos, theater awards, and the approbation of ladies' cultural societies.

Beck Center Artistic Director Scott Spence lured Dorothy and Reuben Silver, the city's most prestigious acting couple, to star and direct. This was a risky casting choice. Dorothy Silver is vastly removed from this character in age and temperament. Then, to further complicate matters, the actress underwent two major surgeries a few months before production was to begin. Madame Silver, however, proved herself every bit as strong-willed as her character. Rehearsing for weeks on her couch, she bent McNally's creation to her own implacable will.

Silver's claim to stardom comes from her ability to make audiences her co-conspirators. Whether playing gorgon, hausfrau, or dizzy dame, the actress only has to narrow her eyes and furrow her brow to project her trademark acerbic wisdom.

In her dark pageboy wig and owlish glasses, she's far more suggestive of legendary costume designer Edith Head than of Callas. It doesn't matter that she doesn't resemble the opera singer. What counts is her forceful presence and emotional truth. She is far more grounded and genuine than the playwright's artificial diva.

Silver is ably supported by a cast of Cleveland Institute of Music singer-actors who grovel, bluster, and suggest witty gaucheness with equal aplomb. She is also blessed with a director who has spent decades showing her off to her best advantage. Like a fairy godmother imbued with magical powers, she is able to temporarily turn a piece of costume jewelry into the real article.

Up until its present production, Bad Epitaph Theater Company has managed to freshen centuries-dead playwrights with lots of attitude, insouciance, and Mardi-Gras costumes. With Ben Jonson's The Alchemist, a laugh riot in 1610, the troupe has picked a lemon. Officially categorized in scholarly tomes as a "classic," this play has come down to us like a 400-year-old joint of mutton.

When presented last year at the Stratford Festival, it had little old ladies throwing their walkers at the stage in frustration. Done here at Cleveland Public Theatre, in a combination of commedia dell'arte and Larry, Curly, and Moe, it had audiences dropping like flies. The louder the cast members spoke, the uglier the sound, and the more unintelligible they became. The clowning in this production obliterates all humanity -- which is, in effect, a denial of comedy.

To ascertain what this play is about, you'll have to consult the Oxford Companion to English Literature, as you certainly will get no clue from watching this production.

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