Chris Lam, Tariq Leslie, and Chris Robson in the Ensemble Theatre Company production of Master Class. Photo by Adam Beauchesne.
Chris Lam, Tariq Leslie, and Chris Robson in the Ensemble Theatre Company production of Master Class. Photo by Adam Beauchesne.

In David Pownall’s Master Class, Russian composers Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev are called to the Kremlin by Josef Stalin. In this imagined meeting, the dictator demands they stop writing such depressing music.

As Stalin and one of his officer’s (no character names are provided in the program) proceed to lecture, berate, mock, and admonish the two men, they eventually break their records as the composers watch. It is all a bit labored and one-sided, as the two musicians are powerless in the situation.

And while the actors – Tariq Leslie, James Gill, Chris Lam, and Chris Robson – are all quite fine, the script is so heavy-handed and relentless it makes for a challenging theatrical experience.

While act two adds a new interaction between the characters and provides some much-needed humour, like any abusive relationship it doesn’t take long for the nastiness to return.

Under Evan Frayne’s direction, Master Class is presented on a thrust stage, with the audience seated on three sides. The imperative in this  any non-traditional configuration is to ensure the sight lines are maintained for the entire audience. Unfortunately, this is not the case here.

With the two composers seated in chairs facing the audience on the left, the view for the audience on the right for much of act one is the back of their heads. An easy solution would have been to move the men upstage, allowing everyone a view of the men’s reactions to the verbal attacks.

The technical difficulties of mounting three shows in repertory also proved to be problematic. Mr. Gill’s costume is ill-fitting, and when he removed his jacket it revealed a twisted elastic waistband. Lauchlin Johnston’s set includes a bathroom with a very wobbly door and walls.

While one can admire this company and its mandate, there are huge challenges in making Master Class compelling. Unfortunately, this production failed to overcome many of them.

Master Class by David Pownall. Directed by Evan Frayne. An Ensemble Theatre Company production. On stage at the Jericho Arts Centre (1675 Discovery St, Vancouver), playing in repertory with A Prayer for Owen Meany and In the Next Room until August 16. Visit http://ensembletheatrecompany.ca for tickets and information.