Though skilfully performed and stylishly directed, Stratford Festival’s staging of the adaptation of Eduardo de Filippo’s three-act Grand Magic sadly lacks the requisite amount of sorcery, illusion, and the promised pyrotechnics to pan out as a mystical piece of theatre.
Most of the melodramatic and comedic elements are firmly in place and the cast is led by a wonderfully believable Geraint Wyn Davies in the title role of the sharp-tongued, dexterous master illusionist Otto Marvuglia, still plying his trade in hard times when artists of his renown are now destined to toss out formulaic and rather mundane tricks at lesser sites.
While no longer appearing at grandiose theatres and packed halls, his much smaller crowds – more interested in chatting about the latest scandalous trysts on the go at the seaside Hotel Metropole than art – still appreciate his time-worn gifts of making unseen objects appear from out of nowhere.
The set design of the resort is captured effectively, particularly in the breezy opening scenes with a keen eye by set and lighting designer Lorenzo Savoini while director Antoni Cimolino seizes the moment of a past era and the peculiarities of an odd collection of vacationers – largely older women hell bent for the latest juicy tidbits of gossip and hearsay.
Marvuglia and his desperately lonely yet still somewhat professionally servient, annoyingly loud, and terminally cranky wife Zaira – played in a wonderfully grand style by Sarah Orenstein – are no strangers to such a depressingly similar scenario.
Yet somewhat familiar, the great Otto has more on his plate than usually required in the person of Calogero Di Spelta, a hideously obnoxious wealthy fellow who chooses as often as possible to seemingly proclaim but deny vehemently his jealousy over his beautiful wife Marta (Beck Lloyd).
In addition to the magic show promising to be the highlight of the resort’s entertainment season, Di Spelta’s constant ravings, rebuttals, and angry retorts are clearly as entertaining as what will be on-stage and without cost to those lazy guests sunning themselves on the boardwalk.
Gordon S. Miller produces a delightful gem of a performance in a role that requires lengthy and humorous outbursts, arguing vigorously with the magical headliner – also a pro at complex wordplay. Miller portrays the physical, mental, and spiritual transformation from a simple cuckolded husband to a shaking, aimless wretch who becomes a puppet at the end of strings masterfully dangled from above by Otto.
Key components to the ever-unfolding plotline hatched by the nefarious illusionist are a standard sarcophagus in which the lovely but somewhat dim Marta is required to exit in mysterious fashion for an undetermined period, and her prerequisite younger lover waiting in the wings.
There are more twists and turns, plot deviations, bizarre subplots, an unexpected death, and a humorously sad explanation of the demise of a canary added to the somewhat confusing mix with two others playing into the illusionist’s contorted scheme revealing him to be more of a con artist than a magician.
For the sake of avoiding those dreaded spoiler alerts, shall one just say Steve Ross – without the aid of any magic devices - treats the production’s opening night audience to several delightful comic moments as one Gervasio D’Aloisi.
Emilio Vieira could rival Peter Sellers’ infamously silly Inspector Clouseau of Pink Panther fame with his bumbling laugh-inducing Brigadiere, on the scene to bring order to disorder. He accomplishes exactly the opposite with his rendering of the clueless officer-of-the law.
Wyn Davies is unquestionably top-notch as an imposing, rather powerful presence whose command of an at times impenetrable dialogue is remarkable, if one is quick enough to sort out and unravel the numerous definitions of reality and illusion with seemingly contradictory regularity.
In program notes, Cimolino, notes Grand Magic “was written in the years after World War II, a time when the supposed bedrock truths and realities of Italy’s fascist era were exposed as tawdry lies and delusions.”
His directional approach is spot-on, piloting this clever 2023 version – a world première translation by John Murrell and Donato Santeramo – with consideration to historic sensibilities and still producing a comedic event of relevance that generates audience laughter.
The standing ovation clearly indicates success.
Yet, with all the continuous references to and verbose explorations of the true nature of the author’s favorite words: reality, illusion, perception along with the magician’s experiment or plan and other redundancies within the text, there seems one item missing – magic.
Life and death are obviously only perceptions to Otto and perhaps God is indeed the grandest of all magicians. Yet one feels somewhat slighted by the lack of actual sleight-of-hand, the occasional rabbit out of the proverbial hat or even some modern pyrotechnics.
The physical absence of more magic appears to be more the result of the author’s original text or even the most recent translation performed in that prescribed manner by a very gifted group of actors, directorial and technical members of the artistic company
Real or fake such standard tricks-of-the-trade as they are, such devices could have metamorphosed Grand Magic into an even more enhancing mix of comedy, drama, and tragedy affecting the lives of those of a different era or today.
Guaranteed to liven up post-performance discussions and with or without those modifications the production is well worth a visit. It plays the Tom Patterson Theatre until Sept. 29.