Stage Door Review 2023

Grand Magic

Sunday, June 4, 2023


by Eduardo de Filippo, translated by John Murrell & Donato Santeramo, directed by Antoni Cimolino

Stratford Festival, Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford

June 3-September 29, 2023

Calogero: “Al giorno d’oggi la gente vive nei giuochi d’illusione”

This season the Stratford Festival is presenting rare productions by two 20th-century masters – Grand Magic (1949) by Eduardo de Filippo and Wedding Band (wr. 1962) by Alice Childress. Grand Magic is the first of the two to open and is the third in a series of plays by de Filippo, all directed by Antoni Cimolino, to be staged at Stratford. The first of these was Filumena Marturano (1945) in 1997 and the second Napoli Milionaria (1946) in 2018. De Filippo is the natural heir to Luigi Pirandello. The two admired each other’s work and even collaborated on a play in 1936. Yet, until recently, de Filippo is the one who has been grievously neglected. Grand Magic shows that de Filippo is willing to take Pirandellian ideas into unexpected new places. Cimolino has directed the play with passion and keen understanding and the production features some the finest acting you will see at the Festival this season.

The story begins on the terrace of the seaside Hotel Metropole in Naples. The guests present gossip about guests who are absent, particularly the married Di Spelta couple, Calogero and Marta. Calogero is so jealous of his wife that he won’t let her out of his sight. If he has to leave his hotel room alone, he locks her in.

This gossip is interrupted with the news that the great (actually once great) magician Otto Marvuglia will be performing that night. The guests are interested but some, like Calogero who has joined them, think magic acts are old-fashioned. Two hotel guests, however, spring to Marvugia’s defence. Arturo Taddei and his daughter Amelia speak of wonders he saw Marvuglia perform in Paris. Gervasio D’Aloisi tells a fantastic tale of how Marvuglia so deeply hypnotized him that he felt he had travelled the world for years when in fact he had been standing on the stage for only a minute. According to Gervasio, Marvuglia has the power to project his thoughts into another person’s mind and gain complete control.

As we discover, despite Calogero’s attempts at denying his wife any freedom, she has somehow managed to acquire a lover. This lover has paid Marvuglia to devise a trick that will allow Marta to escape and run away with him.

All goes as planned. Marvuglia makes Marta “disappear” and Calogero is furious. Marvuglia calms him by giving him a small box saying that if Calogero has faith in his wife, he should open the box and she will reappear. If he does not have faith and opens the box, he will lose her forever. The jealous Calogero is thus placed in a terrible dilemma in which his lack of faith is exposed and the return of his wife prevented.

This dilemma eats away at Calogero for the next four years. And so do Marvugia’s teachings about reality. Marvuglia convinces Calogero that everything he is experiencing is an illusion. Only when Calogero opens the box will what Marvuglia calls the “game” be over. Even then, Calogero will see that time is an illusion and people and things are just “in forma concreta le immagini mnemoniche della sua coscienza atavica” (“in concrete form the mnemonic images of his atavistic consciousness”). In other words, what Calogero sees are just physical manifestations of memories of people and things stored in the most primitive part of his mind.

This aspect of the play would seem to be very much like Pirandello who said, “Bisogna vivere, cioè illudersi” (“One must live, that is, delude oneself”). What is crucially different, however, is that de Filippo shows us that it is Marvuglia, who is deliberately deluding Calogero. There is reality in Marvuglia’s world, such as his debts, but he feeds Calogero a Pirandellian philosophy in order to control him even to the point of having Calogero pay off Marvuglia’s debts since according to what Marvuglia says, neither they nor the money that pays them off is real. The irony of Calogero’s susceptibility to Marvuglia’s influence is that Calogero is the first person in the play to speak of illusion. In making fun of magicians before Marvuglia even arrives, he says, “Al giorno d’oggi la gente vive nei giuochi d’illusione” (“Nowadays people live in games of illusion”).

In Grand Magic, de Filippo involves the audience itself in a game. In Act 1 he introduces Calogero through hotel gossip that firmly casts Calogero in the role of a villain and Marta in the role of his helpless wife. Eventually we realize that other than being able to do simple magic tricks, Marvuglia is a charlatan and has none of the occult powers over other people’s psyches that others have claimed. Yet, because Marvuglia is down and out and such a genial character, we are on his side and still view him as Marta’s saviour from her villainous husband.

By Act 3, however, when it becomes obvious through Francesca Callow’s subtle upgrade in her costume design, that Marvuglia and his wife have significantly enriched themselves at Calogero’s expense, our attitude toward Calogero and Marvuglia ought to take a 180º turn. We should ask ourselves why our view toward the two did not change earlier. One reason is that de Filippo has framed Marvuglia’s mental domination of Calogero entirely as comedy. Because of this, the conclusion comes as a shock. On reflection, however, we should see that it is really the logical outcome of the so-called “experiment” that Marvuglia began when he first made Calogero’s wife disappear.

As with his marvellous production of de Filippo’s Napoli Milionaria in 2018, director Antoni Cimolino manages the huge cast with ease. When there is a large group on stage, as in the opening scene on the hotel terrace, he masterfully shifts our focus from conversation to conversation in a way that feels cinematic even though it is purely theatrical. He draws superb performances from all of the main players.

The role of the magician Otto Marvuglia is complex on many levels and requires an actor of the highest calibre. That it has in Geraint Wyn Davies. It is simply amazing how Wyn Davies can make us feel such sympathy for such a charlatan as Marvuglia even as we watch him ever so subtly metamorphose right before our eyes from the saviour of a damsel in distress to a dangerously manipulative parasite.

Wyn Davies exudes such charm he takes us in almost as much as he takes in Calogero and the other hotel guests. Somehow Wyn Davies even makes us ignore Marvuglia’s callous disregard for the death of someone he should care about. What is especially brilliant about Wyn Davies’ performance is how he suggests both that Marvuglia himself knows that he is constantly skating on thin ice but does not fully realize how fully he has destroyed Calogero’s psyche. It is a great role given a truly great performance.

As Calogero Di Spelta, Gordon S. Miller gives what is his best ever performance at the Stratford Festival. Miller has the ability to convey both the strength and weakness of the supremely jealous Calogero at the same time, since, indeed, jealousy is a sign of doubt and fear. Calogero has the most extreme dramatic arc of any character in the play, and Miller demonstrates in step-by-step fashion how a vital young man can lose not only his bravado but his faith in the reality of everything including himself. De Filippo felt the mixing of genres better reflected reality and in Grand Magic, he leads us on a journey which begins in comedy but ends, much to our dismay, in tragedy.

As Marvuglia’s wife Zaira, Sarah Orenstein provides a deeply comedic reality check on our admiration of Marvuglia. Marvuglia acts as if money, food and lodging were of no concern, leaving them to be the primary concerns of Zaira. Thus Zaira becomes rather like the Sancho Panza to Marvuglia’s Don Quixote. Yet, Orenstein shows that Zaira has a full knowledge of her self-worth and of her worth to Marvuglia. Orenstein makes clear that much as Zaira can see through the bluster and carefree attitude of her husband, she also knows that she loves him too much, despite his manifest faults, to leave him.

David Collins and Steve Ross are excellent as Arturo and Gervasio. When they each describe the wonders that Marvuglia has made them experience we are swept up in their almost devotional language and their rapt description of wonder. On reflection we see that how Arturo and Gervasio affect the hotel guests with their tales is, in miniature, how Marvuglia affects Calogero and how de Filippo affects us.

In smaller roles, Emilio Vieira absolutely steals the show as the comic Brigadiere investigating Calogero’s claim of murder against Marvuglia. Never has a detective appeared so tough and so corruptible at the same time. Tyrone Savage lends the hotel’s Head Waiter an air of mystery that well suits a play about illusion and reality. Germaine Konji is utterly charming as Arturo’s delicate daughter Amelia. Beck Lloyd wins all our sympathy in her brief appearance as Calogero’s suffering wife Marta. And Jamie Mac is appropriately annoying as Calogero’s officious brother Gregorio.

With a minimum of means Lorenzo Savoini conjures up a three very different locations from the sunny then starlit hotel terrace to Marvuglia’s rundown lodgings to Calogero’s elegant home. Savoini’s lighting is as important as the furnishings in bringing out the character of each setting. Francesca Callow’s 1950s costumes are a delight both for their wit and their period detail.

This is the world premiere of a new translation of Grand Magic begun by John Murrell and completed by Donato Santeramo. Cimolino’s exploration of de Filippo has immeasurably enriched the offerings at the Stratford Festival. Grand Magic shows us quite a different side to the author than did either Filumena or Napoli Milionaria. Grand Magic is particularly relevant in that what Marvuglia does to Calogero amounts to an extreme form of gaslighting. Marvuglia’s goal is not to drive Calogero mad, as is the husband’s plan for his wife in Patrick Hamilton’s thriller Gas Light (1938) where the term comes from. Rather, Marvuglia’s aim is simply to assume complete control over his prey.

Though de Filippo keeps Marvuglia’s discourse on a philosophical level, the play demonstrates how an unstinting barrage of misinformation that counters a person’s perceived view of reality can ultimately destroy one’s belief in one’s own perceptions. This leads to a person’s submission to whoever has the strongest, most persuasive views. De Filippo may have had Italy’s fall under the spell of fascism in mind, but chillingly we have examples all around us today of people who deny observable reality. Grand Magic is a profoundly fascinating play that leaves one hoping for more de Filippo to come.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Gordon S. Miller as Calogero and Geraint Wyn Davies as Marvuglia; Gordon S. Miller as Calogero; Geraint Wyn Davies as Marvuglia; Beck Lloyd as Marta and Jordin Hall as Mariano. © 2023 David Hou.

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