The Arts
November 9-15, 2005

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Renegade does Dahl's 'The BFG,' while the Pear remembers Maria Callas in 'Master Class'

By Marianne Messina

RENEGADE Theatre Experiment is running another experiment, a family play, the David Wood adaptation of Roald Dahl's The BFG (Big Friendly Giant). A little girl named Sophie (alternately played by Jean Naughton and a raggedy dollkin) finds herself in the land of big man-guzzling giants with names like Childchewer, Gizzardgulper, Bonecruncher and most tasty, Fleshlumpeater.

Like Dahl himself, the Renegade production has an eye and ear for speaking directly to the child in us—magic, creepies, silliness and all. The presentation of the giants balances gross fearishness with childlike playroomery. Made huge by leopard- and tiger-print robes suspended from raised epauletlike bars, the giants have faces that evoke bag puppets, but with punch-squashy noses, flopous ears, colored cotton-ball hair and most nastish beadyivorous eyes. Yet the actors were often visible through the front slit of the robes, which left a shimmering boundary between scary/yucky and mundane. As the BFG (Dean Burgi) runs over the dark world in stylized giant fashion (Evangeline Maynard, movement coordinator), flashing colored lights and intense primal drumming create an exciting, surrealistic, free-feeling effect (Jacqueline Steager, lighting; Derek Batoyon, sound). The fart scene, that is, the wizpopping scene, mega-works—Burgi rolling his middle parts like a drunken hula dancer to a sound that crosses a singing drum with a clogged toilet. Emily Morrison makes a majestic queen of England, easily carrying an outlandish Faerie Queene costume (costume design, Bernadetta Balunova) of autumn-leaves cape, Henry VIII (ish) skirt and a bodice covered with decorative silver chains and dangling globes—actually, soccer balls.

At a recent show, families with children sat, enthralled, on pillows in the pit alongside the stage thrust. Among them, even a pair of boys with that already developed air of "nothing ruffles me" were somewhat gruntified when the giants came into the pit and made like pack dogs on the rag-doll Sophie.

Even if you've sworn allegiance to hip-hop or C&W, Master Class, now being performed at the Pear Avenue Theatre in Mountain View, will make you hungry to experience opera. Terrence McNally based his play about opera legend Maria Callas on recordings from her 1971 instruction sessions, open to the public, at Juilliard School of Music. Taking many of Callas' actual statements, the play conflates the stages of her supernova life to create a taut, intense portrait of a woman driven to press her talent to its limits. As Callas, Diane Tasca passes through the fourth wall seamlessly. Stepping into the audience, "You don't have a look," she informs one theatergoer. "I'm talking flair, style, élan."

As soon as the first student, Sophie De Palma (Keri Lindell), walks shyly into the classroom, the mercurial Callas goes after her: "You told us your name, but who are you?" The tension as aspiring artists try to be themselves in the presence of their ideal forms the kind of humor that can only be laughed at from the outside. "When you're fat and ugly," Callas tells Sophie/the audience, "you had better have a couple of high F's to interpolate into your life." With two talented operatic singers (Lindell, and Ann Assarsson as Sharon Graham) playing the students, the singing snippets are sublime—and hilarious, what with this obsessive, contradictory correction going on. But as the play's structure opens up, so does the emotional tone. The classroom goes dark as Callas remembers her glory days. Tasca dodges in and out of characters from Callas' life: a deep, growly voiced Aristotle Onassis or cartoonish representations of backstage gossipmongers.

The Pear's careful modulation both in timing and emotion (directed by Jane Bement Geesman) brings out McNally's brilliant orchestration. It puts risky tones together. You may be hearing a gentle aria, "the lost prayer of a heart that is dying," and over it, Tasca's Onassis voice saying, "You give me class, and I give you my big uncircumcised Greek dick." It pits music against speech and flows to a big operatic finish. While Sharon sings the challenging role of Lady Macbeth (Assarsson's voice makes interruptions so hard to bear), Callas is shouting out pointers. Suddenly, with all her emotion and percussion, she's part of the music, like some formerly hidden clockwork. Tasca is aflame in this role. She cinches the many parallels McNally suggests between lady Macbeth, who, Callas says, must infuse her husband with "balls," and Callas, who practically crawls up inside her students' voices.

The BFG, a Renegade Theatre Experiment production, plays Thursday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm through Nov. 26 at the Historic Hoover Theater, 1635 Park Ave., San Jose. Tickets are $13/$18 (408.351.4440). Master Class, a Pear production, plays Thursday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm through Nov. 20, at the Pear Theatre, 1220 Pear Ave., Mountain View. Tickets are $10-$20 (650.254.1148).

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