Master Class
★★★★
Through Sunday, Aug. 19
Kennedy Theatre, Raleigh

“You’re a monstre sacré now. We’re both monstres sacrés,” the shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis says to Maria Callas in Master Class, currently running at Kennedy Theatre.

He might be right. There is something monstrous in the figure director Ray Dooley and actor Judy McLane present in this Theatre Raleigh production of Terrence McNally’s drama. Certainly, their Callas is charming, in what is virtually a one-person show based on the life of the legendary opera diva, and the playwright gifts her with an incisive, disarming wit.

Still, there’s something decidedly carnivorous in the way McLane prowls designer Chris Bernier’s chilly auditorium set. Strip away the civilities, as McNally does on several occasions, and we’re left with a creature who once dominated the great stages of the world, now caged and on display in a Manhattan recital hall. Her regular diet apparently includes promising young opera students.

It’s historically accurate that Callas staged a series of master classes at Juilliard over six months in 1971 and 1972. But McNally’s script slips when it asks us to believe that students accomplished enough to qualify for a master class with Callas would be such easy prey, so unprepared and uninformed about the content and context of the works they’re singing.

But Callas’s true monstrosity isn’t in her casual evisceration of her temporary, uncomfortable guests. Nor is it in her flashbacks to the traumas and triumphs of yesteryear as she tunes out the struggling artists before her. It only comes after she returns from woolgathering to sagely pass professional sentence on women she hasn’t been listening to at all, with only the most general words of praise. So much for her lofty pronouncements on exacting standards, aesthetics, and the truth in art. When Sharon (a notable Juliana Valente), an outraged student, calls her on it, we see a Callas who can no longer perform dependably on the stage or in the classroom: an artist whose world is continuing to implode.