Monday, April 7, 2008

Hunger Artist Redux

Last Friday we went to the Maltz Jupiter Theatre, where we have had a season subscription since the theatre opened five years ago, to see Master Class, Terrence McNally’s Tony prize-winning play about the great soprano, Maria Callas. The play was based on classes she gave at Julliard at the end of her illustrious career.

The theatrical productions at Maltz have been inconsistent. Some are chosen to appeal to its diverse, mostly retirement age, audience and as such they are merely a pleasant way to pass the evening. But Master Class was unlike anything else this season or in prior ones, with a soaring performance by Gordana Rashovich who plays the iconoclastic diva. The review that appeared the next day in the Palm Beach Post provides the detail:

We knew we were watching an extraordinary performance, one that vaulted a very good play into greatness. During intermission I stepped out into the breezy, balmy Florida night and was surprised to see a number of people leaving the theatre, overhearing objections such as they felt they were being lectured to, the play was too confrontational, or, even, disappointment there was not more music. These criticisms of course missed the whole point of what this play is about. It was a lecture; the audience is attending a “master class” which by the very definition is a place where students come to be taught, but the play is a conceit for us to see into the very soul of a true artist, the remarkable opera soprano, Maria Callas. And we are confronted by Callas’ caustic observations about art and life, and her inner musings about her rivalries and her love affair with Aristotle Onassis.

The comment about not being “enough music” jogged a memory, while standing there in the Florida night, of the Franz Kafka’s short story I read so many years ago in college, A Hunger Artist. Those details came flooding back as I watched a few people getting into their cars, driving off. Kafka’s allegorical work portrays a “hunger artist” – a man in a circus sideshow who is a fasting artist, one who is literally starving himself to death for his art and for the spectacle of the masses. They ignore him, streaming past his cage, going off to see the lions being fed instead.

And similarly Master Class is about the artist’s relationship to society and the sacrifice required to attain a level of perfection, one that Callas achieved in her career, and now Gordana Rashovich finds in portraying Callas. All art is a solitary journey, for the creators and the performers, although in the performing arts it is a symbiotic relationship, somewhat of a contradiction for the performer who on the one hand must be a vessel for the creative artist’s intention, and this was at the heart of Callas’ performances (“listen to the music!” Callas demands of her students in the play), but on the other hand feeds on the approbation of the audience. McNally says, and Rashovich states with such conviction, that the performer must dominate the audience, in a sense to bring the audience to a level that the artistic creator intended. McNally and Rashovich make you actually feel the gut–wrenching sacrifices and demons that possess a great artist such as Callas and the artists for which she serves.

Rashovich’s performance prompted my wife to write her first ever “fan letter.” It says volumes about this extraordinary performance…

Dear Ms. Rashovich:

I'm 66 and this is my first fan letter. I've been a devoted theatre lover since I was 16 and spent a summer visiting NY from my hometown of Atlanta, Ga. and saw a string of fantastic plays on Broadway that left an indelible mark. I moved to NY on my own in 1959 and saw every conceivable play I could afford and have been an insatiable devotee of live performance all my life, both in this country and abroad.

But last night, I felt privileged and blessed to witness what I can only say was such a tour de force as to leave me breathless. Your performance was so outstanding, nuanced and powerful, that it reincarnated Diva Callas before my eyes. I had seen this play years before in NY, but the actress was completely lacking in your ability to possess the role, body and soul.

I just want to say thank you, for all your hard work, years of dedication to your craft and for giving my husband and me such a thrilling evening, which we will never forget.