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Truth and beauty in ‘Master Class’

By Allan Pastrana
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 00:17:00 11/03/2008

Filed Under: Culture (general), Theatre

MANILA, Philippines - The Philippine Opera Company ended its 2008 Opera Season with Terrence McNally?s ?Master Class.?

A McNally play is interesting enough, though the choice wouldn?t have held up on its own since POC has already mounted the same work two years ago. But Cherie Gil as Maria Callas was a totally different story. Her presence made this production one of the most anticipated events in Philippine theater this year.

In ?Master Class,? McNally brought back to life the iconic Callas, beloved by his idolatrous gay characters in ?The Lisbon Traviata.? With this play, we are able to trace now the direct line running through Medea?s ?Ho datto tutto a te? (addressing her Jason), Stephen?s ?I left everything to you? in ?The Lisbon Traviata? (addressing his Mike), and the Callas in ?Master Class? genuflecting before her imaginary Ari, arms wide open.

Here, the legendary soprano is stripped bare, while giving her equally historic Julliard master classes. She is both the has-been with the ?cracked and broken? voice and the genius whose insight into music was unparalleled.

Because the ?idea? that is Callas had been greatly automatized, at least in our generation, what the play made possible was for us to see the defamiliarized ?La Divina.? This exposed her from her mythical status, which approached truth, and showed her extraordinary devotion to beauty, artifice, what is rightfully artistic in any art.

One-woman show

McNally is excellent in handling small ensembles in contained spaces?a skill not seen since Edward Albee.

The other three performers in ?Master Class? were, each of them, supposed to serve as foils to Callas. Two were successful enough to prod her. The odd man out, who shall remain nameless in the spirit of Callas? discreet nature, fell short of nudging the great diva. But, in the end, what matters is ?Mut.?

This play is essentially a one-woman show. McNally himself, in one of his interviews, made it clear that a director who believed in ?dramatic situation and truth? would do away with a ?concept production.? Michael Williams encouraged that kind of fidelity, a truth that didn?t need glossing over. The show achieved fineness and integrity through attention, rather than through effects.

Along that line, Cherie Gil?s Callas was a multileveled, unmannered and consequently generous rendering. Gil is a personality herself, but there was not a trace of that here?no obliterating imposition of ego and character.

She wasn?t ?acting? her way through the role either, because as Maria would quip, ?I hate that word. ?Act.? No! Feel. Be.?

There was a lot of ?feeling? and ?being? here all right. The actress was neither Cherie Gil nor Maria Callas, but a woman who had emptied herself to give everything to a man and her music, in the name of love and art.


We have to understand that the reason this particular work by McNally was praised by critics as a play of notable humanity was not because it was based on a life, but because it is a life. This constructed reality lends itself more naturally to an un-intrusive yet commanding and lucid delivery by a true actress?like Cherie Gil.

She obviously went beyond mimesis and delved more on ?poiesis??the process of ?making? being more dynamic and participatory.

Drama is not ?life? per se, but also art. Though ?life? is obviously material, what?s recoverable from a piece of theater is how that life was created or recreated for an audience.

As the brilliant critic Eric Bentley wrote: ?So soon as we think about it, we recognize that dramatic, like all other, art necessarily involves both imitation and selection, nature and artifice, truth and beauty.?

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