Grand Magic At The Stratford Festival
Grand Magic by Eduardo De Filippo, in a new version by John Murrell and Donato Santeramo, is unfolding in three – dare I say – magical acts at Stratford’s Tom Patterson Theatre. Under the assured direction of artistic director Antoni Cimolino, this production proves that great theatre is no illusion.
Grand Magic is Cimolino’s third visit to De Filippo’s work, after Filumena in 1997 and Napoli Milionaria! in 2018. Let’s hope it’s not his last.
A program note mentions that Grand Magic is De Filippo’s most “Pirandellian” play and the comparison to Luigi Pirandello, who was something of a mentor to De Filippo, is apt. For my money, however, De Filippo weaves a much more luxuriant tapestry.
Pirandello’s characters tend to be one-dimensional figures used to explore his psychological and philosophical conundrums. De Filippo gives us a rich and richly observed cross-section of Neapolitan life. Cimolino, directing a diverse cast in high comedic style, brings them to vibrant life.
Grand Magic tells the tale of the down-at-the-heels magician Otto Marvuglia (Geraint Wyn Davies at his avuncular best) and his loyal and long-suffering wife Zaira (Sarah Orenstein). Marvuglia’s magic tricks may be conventional but he is blessed with the ability to cloud men’s minds with … well, with bullshit.
On the seaside terrace of the posh Hotel Metropole, where he has been booked to perform his “grand magic,” his confederates (Steve Ross, David Collins, and Germaine Konji) work the crowd, pretending to be audience members at “il professore’s” previous performances in Paris and elsewhere, and they speak of the wonders he has wrought with his Third Eye.
Marvuglia has been paid by Mariano (Jordin Hall) to help him steal his lover Marta (a lovely Beck Lloyd) away from her insanely jealous and arrogant husband Calogero Di Spelta (a magnificent Gordon S. Miller), who has a penchant for locking her in the hotel room when he goes out. And so, at that evening’s performance he chooses Marta as a volunteer, places her in a sarcophagus and – poof! – makes her disappear to a rendezvous with Mariano, who spirits her away to Venice.
When Calogero angrily demands that Marvuglia return his wife, the magician presents him with a small, decorated lacquer box, telling him that his wife is inside. Calogero, perhaps understandably, refuses to believe this and the magician tells him that, if he truly believes his wife is faithful, he will open the box and she will be his once again. But if he does not, then when he opens the box he will lose her forever.
The guilt-ridden Calogero is torn and tormented. Unable to bring himself to open the box, he clutches it under his arm and begins to descend into despair. The “game” – for that is what Marvuglia calls it – is afoot and the darker purpose of Grand Magic begins to unfold.
Unable or unwilling to tell Calogero the truth, that his wife has eloped, Marvuglia leads him in an elaborate ruse, convincing him that what is happening is all part of the game that started during the show at the Metropole. While time seems to be passing for Calogero, Marvuglia assures him that when the game is over mere minutes will have passed. Calogero begins to doubt the evidence of his own senses.
As the relationship between the two protagonists changes, our perception of them does as well. Marvuglia, at first a charming rogue assisting the course of true love, transforms into a shrewd con man, enriching himself at Calogero’s expense. Calogero, at first blush an arrogant s.o.b., becomes a pitiful figure totally unable to distinguish reality from the lies he’s been fed, even when his wife is brought before him to tell him she has left him forever. His family, led by his brother Gregorio (a commanding Jamie Mac) wants him declared insane.
Grand Magic was written in the years after the end of the Second World War and scholars have read it as an indictment of fascism and the delusions it foisted on the Italian people. As an American, I found it hard not to see echoes of what is happening in the United States, where millions of people deny observable reality and slavishly follow an amoral grifter and craven politicians who traffic in nothing but lies.
Cimolino has given Grand Magic a sumptuous production, even while working on the mostly bare elongated thrust of the Patterson. Francesca Callow’s costumes do much of the job that sets normally do, painting a precise picture of time and place. They range from very upscale frocks for women and resort wear for men (I covet Calogero’s Act One costume) to the ragged suit of Magliano (Stephen Jackman-Torkoff), whom Marvuglia has conned out of a huge sum of money.
Lorenzo Savoini’s sets consist of perfectly chosen furniture and rugs, while his lighting creates magical moments and mesmerizing scene changes. The composer Wayne Kelso and sound designer Ranil Sonnadara have created a lush Neapolitan soundscape.
In the simple, almost austere confines of the Tom Patterson, actors are the primary ingredient. Here Cimolino’s gifts as a director are on full display as he draws fully rounded performances from his cast, even from relatively inexperienced newcomers.
Geraint Wyn Davies has created a Marvuglia that rivals his Falstaff from two Merry Wives of Windsor at the Festival, one in 2011 and the other in 2019. Gordon S. Miller has fulfilled his early promise to become one of those rare comic character actors who can also carry a leading dramatic role. Sarah Orenstein as Zaira paints a subtle but vivid portrait of a stage wife who keeps the act on course as they navigate stormy financial seas.
One thing that sets Grand Magic apart from its Pirandellian antecedents is De Filippo’s use of humour to highlight the follies of human existence. Cimolino makes the most of the possibilities, drawing superb performances from some of the subsidiary characters. Emilio Vieira nearly steals the entire show with his hilarious one-scene appearance in Act Two as a policeman summoned by Calogero to bring Marvuglia to justice. Jackman-Torkoff makes the creditor Magliano’s confrontation with “il professore” a minor comic masterpiece.
Grand Magic is the only show Cimolino is directing this season (he frequently directs two) and the Festival is the poorer for it. Still, we have this grand Grand Magic to savour. Don’t miss it.
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