Tag Archives: angela iannone

Iannone’s Amanda latest venture into Williams’ canon

Fresh from her role as opera diva Maria Callas in Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s production of Master Class, Milwaukee actor and playwright Angela Iannone is ready to try something different. And nothing could be more different than the role of Amanda Wingfield, the abandoned wife and faded Southern belle of The Glass Menagerie.

In Tandem Theater opens its production of the Tennessee Williams classic, starring Iannone, on Sept. 25.

Although it’s not her first experience with Williams — Iannone has played Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire and Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof — Iannone says Amanda presents an entirely different set of challenges. And she’s looking forward to them. 

I spoke with her about those challenges.

How is this role different from Williams’ other faded Southern belles? Williams’ plays are, to my mind, American plays of manners. His women seem to come from a place of social structure — civility, appearances, good graces and expectations of gentle treatment from the world — and they are continually disappointed. Williams’ women run into trouble when they are asked to speak the truth, and truth for Williams is the thing that breaks the world. 

The Glass Menagerie is different from other Williams plays because it is a memory play. The audience sees Amanda through her son Tom’s eyes and hears her voice as it is remembered by Tom. 

As such, there can be no resolution for the characters. Amanda doesn’t get to “finish” like Williams’ other characters. Her resolution, if there is one, is not one that Tom saw because he left. This is a far more delicate play in walking the line between “now” and “then” than most audiences realize.

This was Williams’ earliest play, the one that launched his career when it was first performed in 1944. It is also said to be his most autobiographical work. Williams has said that Amanda, and Blanche DuBois, too, are more autobiographical than factual. It is popular and current to say he based those women on his own mother, and perhaps some of that is true. But as a playwright myself, I can say that all of my characters speak with my voice, just different facets of it. 

I believe the same thing is true of Amanda. She’s one facet of Williams’ own voice. She is, however, also an invention: a fantastic creature he created for his own dramatic purposes.

Some scholars have said that the role of Amanda Wingfield is one of the greatest female roles in American theater. Do you agree? Interesting question. Tennessee Williams is one of our great American playwrights, and Amanda has certainly been a great character for many of our great American actresses, but I don’t know that I personally would put her in the pantheon of great American roles for women. I don’t want that to sound dismissive or disdainful — it isn’t at all. But if you ask a group of dramatic lit professors that question, you are likely to get a parade of broken, dysfunctional and suicidal women, most of them completely uninteresting to me. The play belongs to Tom, not to Amanda, however interesting the role of Amanda may be. 

What are some of the great roles that you have played? Medea was one of the most fascinating characters I’ve ever played, at least in Robinson Jeffers’ version of the story. Playing Kate Hepburn in Tea at Five was pure delight, and I adored playing Sarah Bernhardt in Memoir, even though I did think the play was pretty terrible. I had a ball playing Mae West in Dirty Blonde, but I thought I was too tall and thin to do her justice. I have played Kate in The Taming of the Shrew, have been Lady Macbeth twice, and Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream six times, all but one of which were fun and very satisfying. 

I have even had some small success in American musical theater, where I believe most of the great women’s roles migrated. Playing Roxie in Chicago and Adelaide in Guys & Dolls were both enormous fun.

What is the state of female roles in theater today. Would you describe the characters as fully evolved? Well, it depends what you mean by fully evolved. As a 19th-century scholar, I can say with certainty that there are some fabulous female roles in most of those old scripts. Marguerite in La Dame Aux Camelias used to be the judgment mark of a successful actress. Anything from the repertories of the greatest of the grande dames like Bernhardt and Eleanora Duse are terrific, meaty and complex roles, but are they considered fully evolved? I adore Restoration comedies and there are some awesome roles for women in them. 

Essentially, I do not believe any time period has a lock on “the truth” or “great writing” when it comes to developing great roles for women, and contemporary stereotypes are no more truthful or interesting than those of past eras. Is the role of Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? a better or more evolved role than Clytemnestra in Agamemnon? Not to me it isn’t. I have no interest in Martha, but I’d love to play Clytemnestra. 

Contemporary takes on the classics do a lot of gender-bending, like my drag role as Henry IV and as Boyet in Love’s Labour’s Lost, but I’m never certain how successful those are, or even should be. I confess to a great deal of discomfort with gender-bending, even when it works.

On STAGE

In Tandem Theatre presents Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie at the Tenth Street Theatre, 628 N. 10th St., Milwaukee, from Sept. 25 to Oct. 19. Go to intandemtheatre.org or phone 414-271-1371.

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Milwaukee Chamber’s ‘Master Class’ easily earns a ‘brava’

There may not be enough superlatives in my vocabulary to properly explain why Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s season-opening production of Master Class can’t be missed.

The magic begins at the very beginning, when Angela Iannone, who reincarnates opera legend Maria Callas, takes the stage to a burst of applause, then quickly silences the audience with a decisive wag of her finger. Like Callas, Iannone is the star and she calls the shots.

Iannone takes the word “powerhouse” to a new level. She commands every eye, stepping into the diva’s old operatic roles and delivering them in recitative with as much emotion and passion as if she was once again able to sing them at a moment’s notice. She evokes raw tragedy or comedy with a mere aside or a profound silence.

But this is not just the Angela Iannone Show — although such a play would have been nearly as impressive. She’s flanked with cast members who deliver exemplary performances of their own. They and directors Jill Anna Ponasik and James Zager earn their own superlatives.

Still, Master Class, written by Terrence McNally, centers on Callas, considered one of the greatest opera sopranos of all time and also one of opera’s most controversial divas. The play examines her in her twilight years — past her triumphant debuts, the dynamic weight loss that many suspect crippled her voice and her tempestuous love affair with Aristotle Onassis, the shipping magnate who would later leave her for Jacqueline Kennedy.

Yet, she remains the spirited woman she has always been: “La Divina,” a blessing and curse.

The play’s history with Milwaukee Chamber Theatre dates back to 1999, when Iannone first took on the role. The production was as successful as Callas herself, and Callas would become a signature role for Iannone, who has since played it elsewhere in the Midwest.

If her performance then was anything like it is now, it’s easy to understand its popularity. Iannone volleys with dizzying speed between Callas’ many moods, finding her greatest moments in snippets of dry humor and flashes of temper that are thrilling to behold. Iannone’s Callas is often unamused by her students, and there’s a delicious chill in the moment she takes to survey them before explaining exactly why they are more foolish than she. 

McNally gives Callas two long, act-ending monologues, and Iannone makes the most of them. She’s breathtaking in those extended moments, those stream-of-consciousness reminiscences over the sound of her most brilliant roles (the real Callas, via recording). The structure of the play makes Master Class half a one-woman show, giving Iannone a chance to flaunt her skills before an audience who will soon be as devoted to her as Callas’ admirers were to the great diva.

Callas may say she has no rivals — “How can you have rivals when no one else can do what you do?” — but she has orbiters, and Ponasik and Zager have succeeded in making them inconsequential only in Callas’ mind. Brian Myers (also the production’s music director) and James Fletcher provide necessary physical comedy as the accompanist and stagehand, respectively.

The three students (Melissa Cardamone, Edson Melendez and Alicia Berneche) are alternately eviscerated and praised. Cardamone’s soprano, in the first act, is an opportunity to reveal Callas’ brutality. It takes 20 minutes for Callas to let her past the first note of her aria. While the young soprano does improve, Cardamone makes it clear she’s merely aping Callas. Melendez’ tenor does better. After Callas criticizes his cavalier demeanor, he produces an aria beautiful enough to bring her to tears, and it’s a joy watching him learn and develop mid-performance.

Berneche plays Callas’ most gifted student, Sharon, which is appropriate, since she’s the actor who comes closest to Iannone’s talent. The scene’s staging brilliantly sets her up to supplant Callas, placing her at center stage as she sings and shunting Callas to the side. It’s the first time our eyes are drawn to someone other than Callas — a fact that manifests itself in a visceral rage crawling over Iannone’s face.

Master Class isn’t a glamorous portrait. McNally’s words and Iannone’s performance ensure that. But it’s a deeply cutting depiction of what great artists must sacrifice to produce great work. The play pierces the heart like the high F that Callas so desperately wishes she could still reach.

On stage

Master Class runs at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre through Aug. 24. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. most weeknights, 8 p.m. Fridays, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets range from $15 to $40 and can be purchased at 414-291-7800 or milwaukeechambertheatre.com.

‘Master Class’

Maria Callas is a legend, both for her outstanding prowess as an opera soprano and her infamously temperamental personality. In Master Class, playwright Terence McNally captures both, depicting Callas as she instructs a class of prospective singers and reflects upon her life. Milwaukee Chamber Theatre brings Angela Iannone back in the role she first performed in 1999. MCT has partnered with directors Jill Anna Ponasik and James Zager of Milwaukee Opera Theatre and Carroll University for this powerful opening to the group’s 40th-anniversary season.

At the Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway. Tickets range from $15 to $40. Phone 414-291-7800 or go to milwaukeechambertheatre.com.

Aug. 8–24

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Hepburn resurrected in encore performance

Angela Iannone wants to make it perfectly clear that screen legend Katherine Hepburn, whom she plays in the In Tandem Theatre Co.’s upcoming production of “Tea at Five,” is not a celebrity in the modern sense. And the Milwaukee actor is strident in her opinion.

“Kate Hepburn is an authentic artist,” Iannone says. “She was celebrated for her unique and brilliant artistry, but isn’t one of those strange people famous only for being famous.”

Legendary might be a better word.

Playwright Matthew Lombardo’s 2002 one-woman show is based on Hepburn’s autobiography “Me: Stories of My Life.” The play tells Hepburn’s story in a monologue form, in two acts that occur at different points in Hepburn’s career. But both take place at the actor’s estate in the Fenwick section of Old Saybrook, Conn.

Act 1, set in 1938, introduces the young Oscar-winner facing an industry that has just labeled her “box office poison,” causing the actress to contemplate her childhood and her start in show business. Act 2, set in 1983, shows us an elderly Hepburn, recovering from a recent car crash, reflecting on her artistic triumphs and her heartbreaking romance with actor Spencer Tracy.

“Kate Hepburn is a fascinating person both for herself and the time in which she lived,” says Iannone, who’s reprising the role that she first undertook with In Tandem’s 2009 production of the same play. “There is no difference in the Hepburn we admire from film or stage and who she was as a person.”

In Iannone’s mind, Hepburn was an individualistic, modern and thoroughly “to-the-marrow” an American woman who sometimes confounded audiences and critics with her East Coast patrician air, breathy voice and direct manner. Hepburn, the daughter of a women’s suffragist, won four out of her 12 Oscar nominations for best actress. She appeared with leading men Cary Grant, James Stewart, Laurence Olivier and, of course, Tracy, with whom she had a lifelong love affair.

“She embodies everything we like about ourselves when we speak of being American, and her career was a journey in defining emerging modern femininity and the ideals of individuality, freedom and self-expression,” Iannone says.

The encore performance is not part of In Tandem’s regular season. It presented itself as an opportunity for the company to revisit one of its most successful productions, according to artistic director Chris Flieller, who also directed it.

“We don’t often repeat a show because it’s so difficult to recapture the ephemeral nature of live theater,” says Flieller, who studied with Sanford Robbins’ professional theater training program when it was still housed at the UWM. “In this case, it hasn’t been that long since we did the show, so it was fresh in our collective memories and Angela was eager to do it.”

Both the actor and her director are adamant that playing Hepburn is no more difficult than playing a fictional character. The role as defined by the play, not the actor’s impersonation skills, determines a production’s success or failure.

“I don’t see a greater or lesser challenge directing a character based on a real person as opposed to one who comes from a playwright’s imagination,” Flieller says. “It’s the ultimate goal to bring both to life, allowing the audience to spend time with someone to whom they feel a connection.”

Iannone agrees with her director. “The playwright and audience expect a certain amount of ‘personation’ to be done,” she says. “There are speech cadences, turns of phrase and physical characteristics that the viewing public expects. Those must be honored as part of the person being portrayed.”

When the person is Katherine Hepburn, the expectations and the audience’s pleasure at their fulfillment is that much higher, Iannone says.

In Tandem Theatre’s production of “Tea at Five” runs Aug. 3-21 at Tenth Street Theatre, located in the lower level of Milwaukee’s Calvary Church, 628 N. Tenth St. Go to www.intandemtheatre.org.