Review: MASTER CLASS at Timeline Theatre Company

Review: MASTER CLASS at Timeline Theatre Company

In Timeline Theatre Company’s MASTER CLASS, Chicago favorite Janet Ulrich Brooks schools the audience with her commanding performance as famous opera singer Maria Callas.

Brooks has always struck me as something of an acting chameleon; she truly changes her shape with each and every role she assumes. This is certainly true of her portrayal of the revered (and sometimes reviled) Callas in Terrence McNally’s 1995 play. Brooks’s performance is a real character study; she mines Callas’s layers and delivers a range of emotional notes and choices throughout the play. She finds a great deal of humor in her delivery of Callas’s lines, but she also shows us the steely exterior of a woman who knew she was under the critical eye of American society. Under the direction of Nick Bowling, Brooks finds a pitch-perfect balance in that she lures audiences close to her, while also keeping just enough distance to reveal that the only person Callas kept truly close to the vest was herself (and perhaps her love Aristotle Onassis).

Much like Callas herself, TimeLine’s production design also conveys an atmosphere of refined grandeur. Arnel Sancianco’s set design transform the intimate space at Stage 773 into a sleek, beautiful wood structure that certainly recalls the hallowed halls of Julliard wherein this MASTER CLASS takes place. Sally Dolembo’s costume designs help make Brooks’s Callas appear all the more commanding (and indeed, Callas makes a point in the play about how everyone must develop “a look”). Doug Peck’s critical music direction also makes the most of the lush operatic arias called for in McNally’s script.

While Brooks’s acting abilities are in a class of their own, her fellow ensemble members meet the high bar she sets. Molly Hernández is convincingly meek and flustered as Callas’s first “victim,”  the First Soprano Sophie. Though as written Sophie is clearly meant to be the kind of character who shall remain in the wings, Hernández demonstrates that she knows just how to play it. She also has a stunning, crystalline voice. Stephen Boyer is delightful as the Accompanist Manny, who is clearly in awe of Callas’s formidable presence. Boyer also music directs and has a lovely voice. Eric Anthony Lopez finds a great deal of humor in his delivery as the self-assured Tenor Tony. Keirsten Hodgens delivers perhaps the most astonishing vocal performance of the show as Second Soprano Sharon. Each of these actors plays off of Brook’s Callas beautifully; they clearly convey a strong desire to impress her and also recoil at her rather harsh criticism.

The dynamics between Callas and her students, as well as her monologues to the audience, are the strongest and most interesting parts of MASTER CLASS. Less successful are Callas’s extended interior daydreams in which she finds herself thrown into fantasies of her career highlights; Bowling’s direction loses its otherwise tight focus in these moments, and Brooks’s strong performance can’t quite make these untethered scenes cohere, either.

In the more than capable hands of the extraordinary Brooks as Callas and the well-cast ensemble, however, MASTER CLASS assuredly earns its title.

TimeLine Theatre Company’s MASTER CLASS plays at Stage 773 through December 9. Tickets are $42.50-$56.50.

Photo Credit: Lara Goetsch

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