`Master Class' pits composers against authorities

Master Class Play by David Pownall. Directed by Frank Corsaro. Starring Philip Bosco, Len Cariou, Werner Klemperer, Austin Pendleton. The horrific alternates and collides with the comic in David Pownall's ``Master Class,'' at the Roundabout Theatre. British playwright David Pownall imagines a chilling 1948 encounter in which composers Sergei Prokofiev (Werner Klemperer) and Dmitri Shostakovich (Austin Pendleton) are subjected to the rant and bullying of Josef Stalin (Len Cariou) and Andrei Zhdanov (Philip Bosco), Stalin's self-important cultural commissar.

The Pownall drama recalls an era of purges and liquidations in terms of a long night's ordeal for two of the eminent composers who fell afoul of Soviet artistic ideology. In the actual musicians' union meeting that provides the background for ``Master Class,'' Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Aram Khachaturian were among the six composers chosen for harsh rebuke. They were accused of ``formalist perversions and many undemocratic tendencies. These include atonalism, dissonance, contempt for melody and the use of chaotic and neuropathic discords -- all alien to the artistic tastes of the Soviet people.''

Like others of their contemporaries, Shostakovich and Prokofiev were brought -- at least temporarily -- to heel. But Pownall's primary concern is supposing how these individuals would have acquitted themselves, had a face-to-face meeting with Stalin taken place. In the last analysis, the composers are totally outmatched, if not completely outmanuevered. Meanwhile, they bear poignant witness to the effects of the communist police state's suppression of artistic creativity.

``Master Class'' is a play more of provocative speculations than of deep insights. When Shostakovich reluctantly complies with Stalin's order to ``play me the best thing you have ever written,'' the dictator greets the composer's effort with a Bronx cheer. Prokofiev is scarcely more successful in attempting to prove that the wolf theme in ``Peter and the Wolf'' is genuinely wolflike. Zhdanov and Stalin illustrate their own tastes by breaking out into a folk song followed by a clumsy dance. At one of his more pontifical moments, Stalin opines that music is as important as heavy industry or agriculture.

In a prolonged and sometimes hilarious sequence, Stalin forces Prokofiev and Shostakovich to ``collaborate'' with him and Zhdanov in creating a cantata from a ludicrous poem the dictator admires. By contrast, the play's most devastating scene has Stalin and Zhdanov compete in smashing the discs for which a stunned Prokofiev has been ordered to choose a representative sample of his recorded work.

The impressive performance staged by Frank Corsaro exploits the tensions of the situation. Whatever the surface mood, the undercurrent is one of terror. Threats and insults flow with the vodka.

Mr. Cariou's Stalin displays a complex of attitudes and motivations -- apparently good-natured, coaxing and cajoling, suddenly enraged, always cunning. The dictator reflects proudly on his Georgian origins and ironically on his seminary training. He scorns the effete Russians. Cariou even suggests, though passingly, a troubled and uneasy Stalin. Mr. Bosco's Zhdanov is ever the unregenerate roughneck, notwithstanding a suddenly revealed taste for Chopin. Mr. Klemperer portrays an ailing, subtly ironic Prokofiev, determined to retain his dignity even when the ordeal makes him physically ill. As a Shostakovich almost constantly in retreat, Mr. Pendleton relishes the moment when the composer defends his musical statement. (Incidentally, for an authentic touch, Klemperer, Pendleton, and Bosco all do their own piano playing.)

Franco Colavecchia, who also designed the costumes, has created a handsome but ominous Kremlin chamber that makes a valuable contribution to the atmosphere of the drama. The lighting is by Robert Wierzel. ``Master Class'' plays through July 6. Sills & Company Improvisational entertainment from materials by Viola Spolin. Directed by Paul Sills.

``Sills & Company,'' at the Lamb's Theatre, offers histrionic fun and games in the best improvisational tradition. Now based in Los Angeles, these veterans of Chicago's Compass, Second City, Story Theatre, and other such groups have come to New York to dazzle and delight the locals with their gifts for instantly invented dialogue and stage business. Time hasn't dimmed their luster, nor custom staled their aptitude for the daring impromptu.

With Paul Sills as director, and working from materials by Viola Spolin, the company takes its cues from the audience and its inspiration from time-honored sources of theatrical ad-libbing. Beginning with the traditional guessing game of ``Who Am I?'' (Sam Shepard the night I attended), the entertainment moves through a succession of variations on the improvisational theme. Instantly cast for the needs of the moment, the players improvise in English and gibberish, in whispers and song, in prose and in verse.

One sketch involves four persons with something in common (the audience opted for a quartet of competing politicians in a sauna bath). Fauna and flora animate more than one sketch; my favorite was Gerrit Graham's ineffable ostrich. In the verse department, MacIntyre Dixon deserved at least a mini-Pulitzer for extemporizing `a la E.E. Cummings on the title, ``Time Heals Everything.'' A highlight had to be veteran Severn Darden's inspired dissertation on the history of architecture (``so we skip to Bauhaus and Visigothic'').

For story theater in the literal sense, the improvisers unfolded a tale -- beginning with each actor delivering just one word -- entitled, ``The Gingerbread Princess,'' who turned out to be a winged piece of cake.

What witty conversation is to the success of a lively party, expert improvisation is to the success of a show like ``Sills & Company.'' Any description of an individual performance must be approximate because -- whatever the tricks of the trade -- the impromptu takes its leads from the audience. Besides those already mentioned, the deft Sills improvisationists include Paul Dooley, Bruce Jarchow, Mina Kolb, Maggie Roswell, and Rachel Sills. Nor should one neglect to mention David Evans's improvised piano accompaniments and Denise Yaney's improvised use of Malcolm Sturchio's lighting. The adaptable, functional setting is by Carol Sills.

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