'Master' delivers on its lessons

Genius resists explanation, least of all by geniuses themselves. So why should we listen to the erratic, self-indulgent Maria Callas, who leads Terrence McNally's "Master Class" with all the delicacy of a drill sergeant?

Put another way: Did Callas' otherworldly brilliance at the midcentury height of her operatic career make her an authority on her art, outside the practice of it?

The answer provided by McNally's alternately riveting and maddening play, which premiered locally at the Mark Taper Forum in 1995, is a resounding yes and no. In director Simon Levy's handsome, intimate revival, we see the play anew as an impassioned demonstration of how inseparable a great practitioner's art is from herself. She is her art, in essence, and that not only can't be taught -- it can barely be understood.

As Callas, Karen Kondazian embodies this irreducibly personal vision down to her toes. A diva in her own right, Kondazian nails the role's sweeping hauteur and catty humor. More importantly, she plumbs both extremes of Callas' emotional journey, from the ecstasy of her world-beating success to the abject depths of her misbegotten love life.

Levy has mixed success with the students who bravely face the master's abuse: Danielle Nice sings better than she acts, Terence Jay vice versa. Achieving the right balance of character and vocal prowess is nervy Hila Plithmann as a soprano bullied into a fiery rendition of an aria from "Macbetto." When she turns the anger back on her domineering teacher, Callas admits feebly, "Maybe this teaching has been a mistake." She's only half right. This "Master Class" may be tough on its ostensible students, but for us it proves a wrenching, cathartic life lesson.

-- Rob Kendt

"Master Class," the Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Hollywood. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends Dec. 21. $25. (323) 663-1525. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

*

'Penetrator' brutal in its intensity

The Anthony Neilson play "Penetrator" takes an unblinking look at brutality in modern society, from disrespect toward the opposite sex to sadism on the battlefield. But by the time that one character has pinned another to the floor and is menacing him with a long, ugly knife, the audience realizes that it too is being brutalized.

Neilson, a Scottish writer, is known for his in-your-face style, and the Rude Guerrilla Theater Company has a well-documented penchant for provocative material. This time, though, the troupe has been foolhardy.

The story begins with a voice-over describing a porn-magazine sex fantasy, then catches Max (Tim Giblin) in the midst of a very private act. When he turns around, the audience gets an embarrassingly long look at his lower anatomy.

A noise at the door announces the return of Max's roommate, Alan (Marcus DeAnda). (Director-set designer Jay Michael Fraley renders their L.A. digs as a black hole of shabbiness and filth.) Bored and disagreeable, Max tries to pick a fight with the more sensitive Alan while ranting about various topics -- especially women -- and ingesting a daunting variety of mind-altering substances.

A playful camaraderie keeps trying to reassert itself, but worse trouble is on the way as Max's old buddy Woody (Steven Parker) pays an unannounced visit, his Marine fatigues ominously covered with blood.

There's no intermission and no unobtrusive way to exit the small theater midperformance, so there's no escaping what happens next. Vividly executed, these events demonstrate how hatred warps the minds of victimizer and victim alike, while hinting at humankind's blundering, sometimes hurtful attempts to find affection. But mostly, the production wallows in its ability to make the audience uncomfortable -- and that's no way to treat ticket-buyers.

-- Daryl H. Miller

"Penetrator," Rude Guerrilla Theater Company, 200 N. Broadway, Santa Ana. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2:30 p.m. No performances Nov. 28-30. Additional performance Dec. 11, 8 p.m. Ends Dec. 14. $15. (714) 547-4688. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.

*

'Nun' means well, comes up short

There are valuable lessons to be learned from the life of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz. A brilliant thinker in a time when women weren't encouraged to use their minds, the 17th century Mexican nun conceived beautiful poetry and smartly reasoned philosophy.

Sor Juana's life -- and, in particular, persistent speculation about the true nature of her relationship with her most devoted benefactress -- has given rise to "The Nun and the Countess." Written and directed by Odalys Nanin, the play seems intended as a meditation on freedom and equality. But clumsy writing and awkward performances short-circuit the good intentions in this MACHA Theatre Company presentation.

The first act is a drawn-out seduction between Sor Juana (played by Nanin) and the Countess Maria Luisa de Paredes (Jodi Fleisher), while the second speeds too quickly through the good sister's suffering at the hands of the Inquisition-minded church hierarchy. The tone shifts so dramatically that one senses two plays wrestling for dominance.

Nanin infuses Sor Juana with a flinty intelligence, but she and co-director Jeannie Austin haven't managed to coax similarly sharp work from the other performers. Timothy Bergen's set design, at least, is magical. It enables the story to unfold amid timeless stone walls and beneath a dreamily starry sky.

A recent audience proved receptive to the story (based on the Alicia Gaspar de Alba novel "Sor Juana's Second Dream"), though rather too eager to laugh at the moments of levity in this otherwise dark scenario.

Sor Juana is an inspiring figure -- no doubt about that. But she deserves a better play.

-- D.H.M.

"The Nun and the Countess," MACHA Theatre Company at the Hollywood Court Theatre in Hollywood Methodist Church, 6817 Franklin Ave., Hollywood. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. No performances Thanksgiving weekend. Ends Dec. 14. $25. (818) 623-9333. Running time: 2 hours.

*

Opulent 'Heiress' a worthy effort

For a period drama, "The Heiress" captures with disconcerting contemporary resonance the devastating psychological scars inflicted by a heartless parent avowedly acting in the best interests of his child. An accomplished performance by Jon Berry illuminates the play's timeless hard truths about human cruelty and selfishness in Kathryn Terwilliger's handsomely staged revival at the Woodland Hills Theater.

While this company has often straddled the fence between professional and community theater, Berry's chilling portrait of a tyrannical patriarch overcomes uneven casting to make this production noteworthy by any standards. A wealthy paragon of 1850 New York society, Berry's Dr. Austin Sloper is aloof, caustic, and keenly observant -- faithful in every detail to the methodical cynic originally envisioned in the Henry James novel "Washington Square," which Ruth and Augustus Goetz adapted for the stage as "The Heiress" in 1947. Victoria Profitt's impressively detailed parlor set and Don Nelson's elegant period costumes viscerally establish the opulence that becomes the story's core of contention.

Although Dr. Sloper accurately sizes up his daughter Catherine's would-be suitor, Morris Townsend (Alex Lvovsky), as a callow gold-digger only interested in her inheritance, Berry shows us the doctor's concern is rooted not in protectiveness but rather in contempt for Catherine's inability to match the talent and beauty of his wife, who died giving birth to her. While Lvovsky rarely gets below the surface of Morris' greed, Berry's constant belittlement explains affection-starved Catherine's desperate need for love.

As the painfully shy, socially maladroit Catherine, Noel Britton is appealing and sympathetic, though sometimes to a fault. One of the story's tough-minded realities is that while Dr. Sloper may be tactless and hurtful, his assessment of Catherine's limitations is accurate. The point would be better served if Britton risked a Catherine who, at least at the outset, is less pretty and likable, if only because the girl has internalized her father's opinion of her; that in turn would give the character room to grow.

In later scenes, however, Britton adroitly taps Catherine's feigned gullibility and sweetness as weapons for exacting revenge, building to a riveting finale. Jennifer Taub brings notable finesse and complexity to Catherine's matchmaking aunt, who has no illusions about Morris but recognizes that the only alternative for Catherine is bitter spinsterhood.

That other hard reality gets soft-pedaled in this staging's emphasis on Catherine's empowerment. When she makes her ultimate declaration -- "Now I can do anything" -- it feels considerably more optimistic than either James' story or the play in entirety suggest.

-- Philip Brades

"The Heiress," West Valley Playhouse, 7242 Owensmouth Ave., Canoga Park. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2:30 p.m. Ends Dec. 7. $20. (818) 884-1907. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes.

*

'Skins' muddles a promising premise

When the neo-Nazi movement erupted in the 1980s, the activist group Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice (SHARP) was also burgeoning. The media, focused on mosh pits and angry confrontation, ignored these peaceful counterparts. By millennium's end SHARP had pulled its grass roots up from Los Angeles.

"L.A. SHARP Skins," Alyson Croft's seriocomic study of the organization for interracial rapprochement, belatedly addresses this lack of attention. After a harrowing prologue depicts a 1967 hate crime, "Skins" jumps to 1992 Van Nuys. Here, a wild bunch of ska-loving "two-tones" are planning a fund-raiser under the leadership (and hospitality) of Drea (Nicola Seixas). Enter Nester (Christopher Warren), a black reporter profiling SHARP. His presence, and appeal to Drea, disgruntles the fiercely protective group. Further complicating matters is a secret concerning Drea and Nester, foreshadowed by the opening murder.

Croft has done her research. The clashes and epithets often recall Lanford Wilson, in tone anyway. The rock-solid Seixas and Warren center a bombastic, invested cast. Other notables include Croft's hilarious, pregnant Emily, Missy Doty's freewheeling Wyleen, John Griffin's and Mat Hostetler's killers and Jamal Gibran Sterling's victim, Phoebe Holston's widow, Sanaa Blackwell's pugilistic Mouse, Ada Luz Pla's glam-punk Grechin, and Marc Wilson's watchdog Reggie.

Anthony Barnao's determined direction falters at the repeated scene changes. Take that prologue, which fails to end with its infant witness crying, and allows its corpse to exit in audience view. This is but one example of misfired tension. By packing the structure, Croft dislocates her theme. The Nester-Drea contrivances are plenty for one play, as are the internecine conflicts within a surrogate family of social agitators. The multiple threads and ill-placed revelations create confusion and over length, and the pat resolution approaches message-mongering sitcom. "L.A. SHARP Skins" has talent and promise, but its overgrown premise needs a buzz cut.

-- David C. Nichols

"L.A. SHARP Skins," Blue Sphere Alliance at the Lex, 6760 Lexington Ave., Hollywood. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m. Ends Dec. 20. Mature audiences. $15. (323) 957-5782. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

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