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REVIEW: Grand Magic at the Stratford Festival

iPhoto caption: Photo by David Hou
/By , / Jun 8, 2023

The following review is a conversation between theatre critics Liam Donovan and Aisling Murphy. Both attended the Stratford Festival’s production of Grand Magic on opening night, June 3, 2023.

The following is a transcription of Liam and Aisling’s conversation, which took place over beers at The Only Cafe in Toronto on June 5, 2023. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Aisling Murphy (AM): All right, let’s get right into it. How did you feel about Grand Magic by Eduardo De Filipo, in a new translation by John Murrell and Donato Santeramo, at the Stratford Festival? It’s worth noting before we get started, too, that it’s directed by Antoni Cimolino, the artistic director of the Festival, in the Tom Patterson Theatre.

Liam Donovan (LD): I thought it was pretty great! It’s the kind of play that feels like it wouldn’t be done anywhere else in Canada, at least to such a full extent.

AM: I agree. They threw so many resources at this off-the-wall, little-known play, and I can’t think of anywhere else, particularly in Canada, that would be able to put so many resources into it. How much did you know about the play before going in?

LD: Pretty much nothing except that it’s Italian and from the 1940s. It doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page. Apparently the title is often translated as The Great Magic? But this production is the premiere of Murell and Santeramo’s great new translation.

AM: I think something that surprised me off the bat was the absence of sleight-of-hand magic in this play. We get a few small tricks, sure, but Grand Magic isn’t what you’re seeing instead of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child — it’s not about intense stagecraft or special effects. It’s about a magician, and not necessarily about the magic the magician does, per se.

LD: I agree, it’s much more about the façade of the magician, how they present themselves.

What I’m interested in chatting about is the show’s structure. It’s a strange one, but I’m kind of obsessed with it.

AM: Same here. Can you talk to me a little about that structure and how it might differ from something else you might see at the Stratford Festival?

LD: Well, Grand Magic is a good bit shorter than King Lear, for instance. But King Lear has one intermission, while this has two. And that three-act structure is actually really important to the show’s dramaturgy because each act is in a totally new location. So you have to keep re-orienting yourself without the benefit of seeing the transition between those locations.

But maybe we should explain the plot now.

AM: Sure, I can take a stab at this.

LD: It’s simultaneously very simple and very complicated!

AM: Yeah, it feels hard to describe the plot without doing a beat-by-beat synopsis. Here goes. So we’re in a Naples resort, and it’s all quite well-to-do and fancy, with classy set design by Lorenzo Savoini. People from differing socioeconomic backgrounds are vacationing together, and they’re gossiping, and they’re playing their little games, which, as an aside, director Antoni Cimolino has choreographed beautifully. When we arrive, the ensemble is playing a game of what looks like bocce ball. It’s a delightful way to start the show, watching these actors improvise in such a low-stakes game.

Anyway. We soon learn that there’s a magician on his way. And some of the people at the resort have seen this magician before, and they feel like they may have been humiliated by this magician in the past. One character says he was turned into a deer, and it turns out he didn’t turn into a deer, but everyone sort of thought that he was a deer, and he didn’t really like that. 

We soon meet the magician, Otto Marvuglia, played, just gorgeously by Geraint Wyn Davies, and we quickly learn that he’s in cahoots with an employee at the resort and who wants to run away with one of the vacationers’ wives, Marta (a demure Beck Lloyd). During the hotly awaited magic show, Marta, who is unhappily married to an abusive husband, is chosen as the volunteer for the magic show, and she steps into a sarcophagus to ostensibly disappear. And by golly, disappear, she does. Her husband’s not super happy about it.

We then basically proceed to do the play Gaslight, except about the husband instead of the wife. I’ll let you take it from there.

LD: Yeah, Calogero di Spelta, this arrogant husband figure, played by Gordon S. Miller, totally becomes the main character. He demands to know what happened to his wife, because he’s just been sitting there watching the show alone since we saw her escape out the back of the sarcophagus. 

In response, the magician gives Calogero a box, and tells him that his wife is inside. The mysterious Otto tells him he can only open the box if he believes his wife has been faithful, which is a losing battle, because we know she hasn’t been faithful — she’s run off with this other man. Also, logically speaking, she can’t be in this box, which is maybe the size of a loaf of bread.

The rest of the play then features cameos from the rest of the visitors at the resort — and they’re incredibly memorable. One of those is Stephen Jackman-Torkoff, who comes in for maybe five minutes. They’re an actor who these days mostly plays larger parts, but because they’re also doing Richard in Richard II, Stratford gets to call them in to rock this silly ensemble role. 

AM: Okay, yes, I’m excited to talk about this. You and I were sitting on opposite sides of the theatre, which due to the Tom Patterson Theatre’s thrust stage means you and I had completely different views. During the magic show scene, I had a direct eyeline on Jackman-Torkoff, and got to watch them act their face off during that group scene. Not only can they act, but they can react like no other.  

LD: Another cameo that was great was the Brigadiere, played by Emilio Vieira. His performance is almost De Niro-esque, with a kind of Italian-American accent and a costume that seems to draw on mafia tropes.

AM: Yeah, out of nowhere we meet this cop who sounds like Tony Soprano, and Vieira just plays the comedy like a champ. It’s a stylistic departure from the hoity-toity posh accents of the rest of the play, and it’s really funny.

LD: All we knew about Grand Magic coming in was that it’s Italian, so giving us that caricature right in the middle was hilariously meta. The audience went crazy. He got exit applause and everything.

AM: I think that’s sort of the thing I keep coming back to: it’s not that I had no expectations for Grand Magic, but I don’t think something at the Stratford Festival has ever been so much of a blank slate for me. This is an uncommon play, and a new translation of an uncommon play. And Cimolino’s direction I found to be just stunning. It’s so efficient and totally diverse in its emotional range, while also being a cohesive play. 

LD: I also just like the trend of actors playing games on stage. It feels so alive. In Canadian Stage’s Maanomaa, My Brother, for instance, there was a scene in which the two leads played a game involving racing each other to touch a rock. I heard that the actors didn’t plan the result ahead of time, which forced them to be totally in-the-moment. And I felt that presence then radiated throughout the whole production. There’s something similar going on with that seemingly improvised bocce ball pre-show.

AM: It reminds me of Jordan Tanahill’s Theatre of the Unimpressed, where he picks up on existing theatre theory and talks about how the most interesting thing he’s ever seen on a stage is an actor trying to balance a piece of fruit on a pin. And I think about that all the time. And I mean, I’m sure you’ll relate to this: when you see so much theatre, the most interesting thing onstage is often the thing you can’t plan for. When you’re watching the cast of Grand Magic play bocce, I think they’re actually playing, and having fun. There’s no way to tell who’s gonna win or where the balls are gonna fall. And I found myself getting really into it. I felt like I was cheering on a hockey game. 

LD: And in the Tom Patterson Theatre, you can always hear everything. So even though the cast doesn’t use their big theatre voices for that scene, I think they know we’re listening in. But there’s still this enticing sense of illicitly peering in.

AM: Do we want to talk about Mr. Magician himself? It’s interesting, and that’s part of the charm of the play: we’ve talked a lot about what’s around the arbiter of grand magic without much discussing the man himself.

LD: Yeah, so his name is Otto, and he’s a magician whose career seems to be going downhill. 

AM: He also has a wife: he’s one half of a long-suffering, long-married couple who bicker constantly but actually love each other more deeply than most would understand underneath that. 

So he has this very complicated life where he’s not really into performing anymore and kind of just wants to run off with his wife into the sunset. But as a seasoned con man and okay magician, he’s been offered millions of lira to make this woman disappear. And it’s almost like this is him going out in a blaze of glory by ruining her husband’s — Calogero’s — life.

LD: 100 per cent. And it’s interesting that even though he’s a mediocre magician, Cimolino has given him the power to control the design. His magic tricks make Savoini’s lights change significantly, to more dramatic and theatrical looks. He has a surprising amount of agency over the theatrical space for a magician of his caliber.

AM: He’s a bad magician and a really good liar. And I find it interesting how those two ideas talk to each other. Because at the end of the day is not all magic a lie, and ergo theatre all just lies? So what does it mean to be good at either of those things? 

And Davies does a superb job as Otto. It’s a tough role, because you’re running the full stylistic gamut from farce to drama to romance and beyond — he’s being tasked with everything. But he finds both the laughs and the heartache. Just quite impressive.

LD: Yeah, the character has a huge range. And in addition to having relationships with pretty much all of the other characters, he has a relationship with the audience. There’s this subplot of Otto trying to convince Calogero that he’s been frozen in time since the magic show, and for a while he claims that the theatre’s audience are actually the hotel guests. It’s discussed for about fifteen minutes before being more-or-less discarded — a creepy implication that’s never fully explored.

AM: And I think it’s a really good choice not to fully explore it, because so much of the play is watching the magician get caught in lie after lie. We’re watching the magician spin, and really think on his feet to try and rationalize how all of it could be true.

LD: Meanwhile, as Calogero, Miller builds up the character so patiently, which is beautiful. And I mean, it’s pretty much a dramatic lead by the end.

AM: Yeah, such a stylistic departure from where we started.

LD: You could still enjoy the play as a comedy, but there’s a creepiness simmering underneath that really boils up in the last half hour or so. And Miller sells the climax masterfully. He’s just so connected to his voice and body. Stunning work.

AM: For sure. And I feel like this play puts its audience in sort of an ethical dilemma in a way I don’t think I’ve experienced in a play before. Because when you first meet this guy, he’s such an asshole, right? He’s belittling his wife. And we find out from his wife that even if he goes to the bathroom, he locks her in a room and takes the key with him — that’s a quick anecdote to show us he’s not a good person. And I think in most narratives, we’d usually stop there, like ‘oh, he’s not a good person, so she’s leaving him for good reasons, fine, feminism, great.’

And so then when we see him gaslit into this neurosis, as you said, we’re all kind of cheering that on. It’s really interesting. It’s humorous, putting that Gaslight narrative on its head. But the performance gets so much more complicated and so much deeper, and you’re really following this person into his own implosion in a way where I felt really guilty at the end for cheering on his demise. This is someone who will never recover from having had this happen to him, from having had his wife cheat on him, but then also the mental deterioration of having been so bombastically lied to, and so publicly as well.

This play has the opportunity to become so profoundly sad. And in its final moments of clarity, it’s so serious. And I’m just marvelling at that contrast to the beginning.

LD: It’s true, which kind of complicates the idea that this might be your silly little Stratford matinee prelude to your evening tragedy. It’s a full meal on its own.

AM: Yeah, and to that end, just for the record, I so endorse this play. If you’re planning a trip to Stratford, this is your mandate: go see this one.

LD: I agree. This is a sleeper hit. It would be a mistake to skip it.

AM: I want to bully everyone I know into seeing this one. I know it’s not one that most people will go to intuitively — it’s not a Shakespeare or a musical — but they should. I’d argue Grand Magic would pair well with just about anything else at the festival for a two-show day.

LD: You gotta go for the Jackman-Torkoff double bill with this and Richard II.

Theatre nerds will dig this one because it would never be written today. The structure is so creative, the dramaturgy so elegant.

AM: Firmly agree: this wouldn’t be written today. This wouldn’t be written in Canada — it’s so specifically of its context. And I think the fact that it’s at Stratford is really, really interesting, in that we’re looking at something that’s not explicitly Canadian or influenced by Canadian dramaturgy. But it’s also definitely not Shakespearean, and doesn’t feel particularly influenced by Shakespearean dramaturgy. It’s just a good play done really well.

LD: Done really well. And you know, with Shakespeare, Stratford doesn’t have to prove anything; they have to do him, he’s their mandate. Similarly, with new plays, there’s nothing for them to prove, because of course it’s worth doing new plays — no one would ever dispute that, especially in Canada. But when they do a play that isn’t canonized or new, they have to justify its slot in the season by doing it great and making it their own. Cimolino has done that.

AM: We could probably gush about this for a few more hours but should probably talk tech briefly. I for one thought the costumes by Francesca Callow were just glorious. Those vacation clothes we start out with! And when the audience saw the costumes during the magic show, there were audible gasps — there’s a parade of evening gowns, with beading and feathers and other gorgeous touches. It’s almost unusual these days to see costumes that are just pretty for the sake of being pretty — they’re not making a statement, mostly, they’re there to be beautiful, which when the rest of the play is doing interesting things, is fine by me.

LD: In terms of Savoini’s set, act one is quite minimal. It fills the space without any clunky furniture, just umbrellas and folding beach chairs. Act two is dustier, a bit of an antique shop vibe. And act three is more opulent, with a bold red carpet reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers

But mostly I’m walking away awed by how spontaneous, fun, and borderline contemporary this show feels. A key moment for me is when Otto tells Calogero to stop thinking and submit to his instincts, because I think the show asks the same of its audience: you just have to go for the ride. And we did. The atmosphere was electric.

AM: It’s great. I was unsure as to how I felt about ending opening week with this one, since it’s kind of a wild card, but I actually can’t imagine a more perfect way to cap off that string of openings in Stratford. It’s got a lot of the emotional depth of Lear and Casey and Diana, and a lot of the comedy of Spamalot. It’s a human drama brought to life spectacularly onstage. It encompasses all the emotional highs and lows of the Stratford Festival, which I just think is really cool.

LD: I agree, it’s classic Stratford. It’s big, polished, and has the best ensemble acting I’ve seen since Fifteen Dogs at Crow’s Theatre. A magic trick of a production.

Grand Magic runs at the Stratford Festival until September 29. Tickets are available here.

Intermission reviews are independent and unrelated to Intermission’s partnered content. Learn more about Intermission’s partnership model here.

Aisling Murphy

Aisling Murphy

Aisling is Intermission's senior editor and an award-winning arts journalist with bylines including the Toronto Star, NEXT Magazine, CTV News Toronto, and Maclean's. She likes British playwright Sarah Kane, most songs by Taylor Swift, and her cats, Fig and June.

Liam Donovan

Liam Donovan

Liam is Intermission’s publishing and editorial assistant. Based in Toronto, his writing has appeared in Maisonneuve, This Magazine, NEXT Magazine, and more. He loves the original Super Mario game very much.



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