The difference between illusion (and sometimes delusion) and reality is a frequent subject of drama. The magician who can produce a rabbit out of a hat or cut a woman in a box in half is a comic trick that we enjoy and simply ask “how did he do it.” we are rarely fooled into believing it but we still want to see it.
Italian playwright Eduardo De Filippo’s play Grand Magic deals with the work of a magician and takes a serious look at illusion and a man who is driven to distraction by one of the magician’s tricks. Antoni Cimolino, the Stratford Festival’s Artistic Director, has chosen this fascinating play to direct at the Tom Patterson Theatre.
Grand Magic starts with all the hallmarks of comedy. Marta di Spelta (Beck Lloyd) is a beautiful and desirable woman. She is married to the arrogant, pathologically jealous and obnoxious Calogero di Spelta (Gordon S. Miller) and as nature would have it sometimes, she has found a lover named Mariano (Jordan Hall).
We are in a fancy Italian resort. Enter Professor Otto Marvuglia, (Geraint Wyn Davies), by reputation one of the great magicians of the world who can turn a man into a parrot among other accomplishments. Unfortunately, he is married to the bitchy Zaira (Sarah Orenstein) and they are flat broke. Among other complications, the secret love of Marta and Mariano develops with the help of Otto. Marta goes into a sarcophagus (one of those fancy Egyptian caskets), it is locked and she disappears – with her lover Mariano, but no one needs to know about that.
The plot thickens and the work of the magician becomes murky when husband Calogero demands the return of his wife. Otto tells him his wife was never there and if she disappeared it was Calogero’s fault. The magician gives Calogero a small box and tells him that his wife is in that box and he is not to open it until he is convinced that she is in there. If he opens it without that conviction, he will never see his wife again. If he sincerely believes she is in the box she will appear again.
We learn that Otto is an out and out charlatan but that does not matter to many people who are convinced that some of the egregious con artists are truthful and legitimate. Donald Trump is the perfect example.
The rest of the play deals with Calogero’s demands for the return of his wife, his deterioration and the developing belief that it is his perhaps his fault that she disappeared and the magician’s trick had nothing to do with it. The play turns the mirror on us who are or can be deluded into believing things that have little to do with reality. The plot becomes complex as illusion, delusion and reality confront each other. This is no charlatan pretending to make a woman disappear from a sarcophagus. This is us in our real world believing that it can be true. I will not disclose anything further.
Geraint Wyn Davies leads a fine, large cast as the would-be genius magician who is in fact a charlatan able to convince many people of his almost superhuman abilities. We see him in his pretended glory, in his cheap trickery and in his defence of his art and acuity. Marvelous performance.
Miller’s Calogero starts as self-assured and contemptuous of others and is reduced to a pathetic human being ready to believe anything. Beck Lloyd’s Marta is statuesque and beautiful who refuses to go on with the charade asked of her.
The theatre-in-the round Tom Patterson makes designing a set difficult and we have to accept the limitations within which Set and Lighting Designer Lorenzo Savoini has to work with. Francesca Callow’s costumes for the upper crust Italian women in a fancy resort are beautiful.
Cimolino handles the large cast of secondary roles and the principals with expertise and gives us a stunning production.
The current production is based on a new version of Grand Magic by John Murrell and Donato Santeramo.
Grand Magic by Eduardo De Filippo in a new version by John Murrell and Donato Santeramo opened on June 3 and will run until September 29, 2023, at the Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford, Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca