Right now, Los Angles seems to be witnessing quite of few staged biographies. This past weekend, Long Beach Opera revived a play by Virginia Woolf about Julia Margaret Cameron and other prominent Victorians. Interestingly, this one-act play (the only dramatic work Woolf ever wrote) was written to be performed at a Christmas party for her soon-to-be famous Bloomsbury friends.
Not surprisingly, watching the play feels like listening to someone tell a long -you had to be there- story about people you-ve never met. No doubt her guests had a lovely evening back in 1923-but 80 years later, if you don-t know who G.F. Watts was, the play doesn-t provide much in the way of character.
Having a story that requires an audience to bring an existing knowledge about its obscure historical characters is one problem for dramatists who write for theaters larger than their living rooms. The other is writing about a person who is too much in the public-s memory.
Terrence McNally-s MASTER CLASS and Ted Swindley-s ALWAYS-PATSY CLINE are two recent plays that try different techniques to capture the intangible qualities that make their subjects so unique. McNally, knowing that finding a singer who could re-create opera icon Maria Callas onstage would be impossible, wisely chooses to never show Callas singing-the play is about her teaching younger singers. Swindley on the other hand, clearly feels that Patsy Cline-s music reveals more about her life than the actual events, so his play is really a revue of sorts, with a few scenes sprinkled in for flavor.
The Fountain Theater-s production of MASTER CLASS features a bona-fide diva in the leading role-L.A. theater veteran Karen Kondazian. She may not look or sound anything like -La Divina- Callas, but she does possess the requisite moxie to play a legend.
McNally-s play is full of leaden exposition for the opera novices and juicy trivia for buffs-which leaves only a few minutes for genuine drama. Luckily, these few minutes feature two good old fashioned mad scenes: long melodramatic monologues where Callas bares her soul-reliving her failures and triumphs while lashing out at the world. Kondazian makes these scenes come alive and these moments provide a real glimpse of a tortured artist-something that you cannot simply get by listening to Callas- recordings.
Along with Callas, country singer Patsy Cline had one of the most distinct female voices of the twentieth century. Which makes things very difficult for Christa Jackson who-s currently playing Cline at the El Portal Theater in North Hollywood.
The actress has a good voice, but she doesn-t sound much like Patsy Cline, so Jackson compensates by affecting a faux-southern twang. This isn-t such a problem in her speaking scenes, but when she sings-any illusion is shattered.
The rest of ALWAYS-PATSY CLINE is mainly given to Sally Struthers-yes, that Sally Struthers-hamming it up as a Houston housewife who through a chance encounter becomes a confidant of Cline-s. Yes, there is something appealing about seeing a celebrity-s life through the eyes of a fan, but most of the time it just feels like a combination of filler to allow Ms. Jackson to change into different cowgirl costumes and opportunities to the crowd-loving Struthers to vamp for the audience.
A modest revue of songs is not a bad idea for a show about Cline-her off stage life was as full of heartbreak as her songs-but it depends so much on a performer perfectly recreating her singular sound. With Patsy Cline-s music so easily heard on recordings-its hard for even a noble effort like Ms. Jackson-s to seem like more than impersonation.
One can understand the instinct to write about a celebrity only years after the person-s death, especially given the built in audience available for such works. But topicality, while great for selling television mini-series events, is not always a help to drama. Shakespeare-s most topical play, Henry VIII, written a good 60-70 years after its real-life events, is one of his least admired.
This is James Taylor with Theater Talk for KCRW