Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Under the thoughtful and sensitive direction of Nick Olcott, Dulaski avoids the excesses of emotion that could come with playing the famous and notorious diva (1923-77) while nailing the earthiness and hard-bitten pride depicted in Terrence McNally's Tony Award-winning script. McNally grounded his play in a series of master classes Callas conducted with voice students at the Juilliard School in 1971, years after her final performance onstage.
Dulaski, a compactly built woman, dominates the stage from her first entrance, when she asks the audience not to applaud or to focus on her rather than the student she will critique. "Ignore me. I'm invisible," she says, knowing that to be an impossible request. By turns, she faces a pale, insecure soprano (Emily Honzel), a soprano with more backbone (Ayana Reed), and a cocky, self-confident tenor (Daniel Noone) while also dealing with an accompanist (Joseph Walsh, also the music director) and a surly stagehand (Michael Sharp).
McNally's script showcases Callas the survivor primarily through her reveries, as the sopranos sing arias from roles she made famous. With the assistance of Alexander Keen's dreamlike lighting and Gordon Nimmo-Smith's photographic projections, accompanied by Callas' own recordings of the arias, Dulaski makes the audience see the diva as an insecure child and a heavy, unattractive young woman who gained respect with her voice. Through torrents of words, she brings to life Callas' strained marriage and longtime, difficult affair with Aristotle Onassis, her regrets and the justifiable satisfaction she derives from succeeding against the odds.
The three singers are all voice students from Washington-area universities, who inspire when Callas allows them to sing their arias. Reed, sparkling in a role that won Audra McDonald a Tony Award, is the only one who stands up to Callas rather than crumbling under her dominance. (As Callas says, "Never miss an opportunity to theatricalize.") Walsh, himself a conductor of operas, brings an easygoing quality to his performance (collaborating with stars is an art, too) and Sharp amuses in his appearances.